Thursday, July 3, 2014

The fourth post

Yes, I was going to write about something new and interesting today. I have a long list of subjects and was about to pick one when I saw a certain, evocative book on my shelving cart and all my plans flew out the window. Or they would have flown out the window except this is a building with tons of windows and yet none that can be opened. So I guess all my plans just got stuffed in my pockets for now because I have a new plan.

I'm going to talk about Jasper Fforde.

Yes, again!

But I am going to talk about titles, which I haven't much talked about. And furthermore I am going to talk about Mystery titles, which I have never talked about.

Which is why you have that tingly I'm-there-at-the-invention-of-the-wheel feeling.

The book that I came across on my cart is a mystery novel called The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde. This book is part of the Nursery Crimes series which as yet consists of only two books. These are two of the greatest mystery novels ever written. Curiously enough these two mysteries are shelved in the Science Fiction section for reasons I would take far too long to explain, and, in the process, would vehemently insult my library slightly more than it deserves.

But besides not explaining why The Fourth Bear is shelved in the Sci Fi section I am also not, mostly, going to talk about why this is such a great mystery novel.

This may be disappointing to Jasper Fforde, but I'm not sure about how the rest of you will feel. But, oh man, the things I could tell you!

But won't.


Because I am going to talk about this puny, great, three word title instead. The Fourth Bear.

Mystery novels are not bad at titles, except when they are bad at titles, at which point they are the worst of all genres at titles. Gimmicks like numbers, letters, puns, and repeated word schemes in detective novel series are not necessarily bad, but tend to lock themselves into a system of diminishing returns, and before you know it your mystery novel is struggling to make a crime pun out chocolate cake for the third time or you're forced to work the number 22 or the letter "X" into your title and have it be vaguely related to your actual book. On the other end of this scale are the scads of terse, tough titles that are also mostly fine, but, whether I like the book or not, fairly interchangeable.

Most of my favorite mystery titles lean towards a simple, evocative elegance. The Big Sleep is a beautiful, tone setting title. I'm also fond of Tony Hillerman, well, his books, but some of the later titles too. Coyote Waits in particular is quite nice. But oh, The Fourth Bear is most wonderful of all to me. It starts off by placing it in all those pun based, theme books contexts, but is more allusive, complex, witty and referential. It's no cheap pun, but a clear, direct reference to the Goldilocks story, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, but all hitting the edge of it from the perspective of dark mystery, overcoats, hard boiled street corners, clues, police procedurals, mystery. Neither is stated directly but, as we stand close to each, a noir mystery and a fairytale, we see them dovetail with lovely, perfect matching, and simple grace. "Aha!" we say. "They belonged together all along!" But we're in on the joke too, and take our pleasure in getting it.

And that, marvelously, is how the whole book is too. 


  1. When shelving, I'm partial to Grafton's approach. When reading a series of mysteries in which the same cast of characters is developed, I wish for Grafton's approach. Second best is a list of books in order at the front of a volume. I just HATE reading a series out of order. "What the heck, what happened that caused him to have an artificial hand?" That sort of thing.

    1. That's a very practical approach, and it's hard not to share it at least on the shelving side of things.


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