The Fourth Bear - Jasper Fforde
The Fourth Bear is the sequel to The Big Over Easy, with DCI Jack Spratt and the Nursery Crimes Division investigating fairytale-related crimes in Berkshire, and it manages to be both a great crime story and a funny fantasy novel all at the same time. The Gingerbreadman, psychopathic biscuit-based killer, is back on the loose, and you'd think that would fall under Jack's jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the self-healing car he bought from Dorian Grey gets him suspended on mental health grounds, and his department are instead assigned the less prestigious task of finding missing reporter Goldilocks, last seen at the abode of the Bruin family. Could there be a connection to the illegal porridge-smuggling racket? How is the QuangTech corporation (run by the reclusive Quangle Wangle) involved? And what's the significance of the huge explosions taking out retired cucumber-growers?
Now this is more like it. After the disappointment of the last Pratchett book, it's good to know that there are still some comic fantasy authors out there who can write a coherent story and raise a few laughs. For all its layers of plot, bad puns and nursery-rhyme references, this book is tightly written and achieves a neatness that was missing from the previous instalment. There's no extraneous weirdness with the Jellyman or the Sacred Gonga this time; the plot here makes much more sense, and the way that the crime's solution comes entirely from the actual Goldilocks story is absolute genius. For all their groan-inducing awfulness, the puns are pretty clever, too - apart from the running joke about the right to arm bears, I am quite in awe of anyone who can take an obscure Swift reference and turn it into the idea of thermocuclear energy.
Being a story-about-stories (as well as a cracking police procedural), the book gets rather meta at times, so that's one thing to be wary of if meta is not your thing. I'm not personally that bothered by authors breaking the literary fourth wall and, effectively, winking at the camera, but I know that some people find it kills their suspension of disbelief - so, be prepared to have the characters occasionaly criticising the author's puns, and for Jack to get round the psychiatrist by revealing she's just a plot device. Otherwise, the book was a real delight, and I enjoyed it immensely.