Jasper Fforde isn't the first to think of putting well-known fictional characters into different, incongruous circumstances. Whether it's the graphic artists responsible for the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or Baz Luhrman, the director of the 1996 modern Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare danes in the title roles, sometimes you just meet a character too good to pass up.
It's a lot harder to give the same treatment to nursery rhymes, though. Someone like Miss Havisham from Great Expectations is a fully-formed character who passes the Perkins test (you'd recognize her on the street and know how to react). How would you characterize Mary Mary Quite Contrary, though? She's a good gardener, sure, but is she young? old? nice? unpleasant? funny? smart? With most of the nursery rhymes, there's nothing to go on, but in his Nursery Crimes series, Jasper Fforde manages to make much out of them.
The two stars of the book are Jack Spratt and his partner, Mary Mary, who together make up the Nursery Crimes Investigator unit (NCI). In The Fourth Bear, they are investigating the disappearance of Golidlocks. They deal with many peripheral distractions, such as the escape of the notorious, merciless serial killer the Gingerbreadman, and the mystery of Jack's used car, recently purchased from Dorian Gray's Used Automobiles which never shows any damage no matter what you do to it (I laughed at that device for about ten minutes). The convoluted plot also involves explosions, cucumbers and dates with aliens. It was quite good, but I wonder if Jasper Fforde hasn't decided to retire the Nursery Crimes series. The Fourth Bear is a couple of years old now, and the ending features a wrap-up of what happened to all the characters. I like the Thursday Next books better, but I'd forgotten how funny the Nursery Crimes were.