Thursday Next, the book detective

Thursday Next, the book detective

second take

Thursday Next, the book detective

An oft-overlooked series in the genre of biblio-fiction are the Thursday Next stories of Jasper Fforde. Thursday, a woman in her mid-30s, is a literary detective in the real world who finds herself immersed in a parallel BookWorld.

It’s a world I visited — rather revisited — recently, and found myself delighting in this parallel literary universe where that seminal dream of every book lover — the desire to step into the universe of a favourite book — somehow manages to come true.

For instance, in one of his best-known novels, The Eyre Affair, a villain named Acheron Hades has entered Jane Eyre and kidnapped its protagonist. Using a Prose Portal, our biblio-detective, Thursday Next, jumps into the book, giving chase. Meanwhile, characters from Jane Eyre escape from the book into the real world. No doubt Fforde was inspired by that marvellous Woody Allen short story, The Kugelmas Episode, where a balding English Lit professor suddenly finds himself in Madame Bovary.

Fforde adds a new dimension by reversing this: fictional creations are able to escape into the real world. In the bookish universe created by him, (Lost In a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels), literature has become central to everyone’s life. Like the alternative universes in his books, his work crosses many genres: mystery, fantasy, and science fiction, and of course, fiction about books.

The setting of the series is Britain, and in this new biblio universe, books are more fun than television and sports; more vital than food and diet. People on the street furiously debate the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Vending machines named ‘Will Speak’ dispense speeches from the Bard for a small fee. Bookworms are bio-engineered. Book cops do battle with philistine bibliophobes. Syntax-slaughtering grammasites run amok inside classics. LiteraTecs, a literary detective squad, monitors book crimes.

Classic works of literature are turned into reality book shows — Pride and Prejudice becomes The Bennets. And a giant philistine corporation is turning the world of books into theme parks for tourists. The Thursday series is full of book references and recognisable characters from famous books, and is not only an amusing and irreverent romp through the classics, but also a celebration of storytelling itself.

In the first book, The Eyre Affair (rejected 76 times before Penguin finally signed him on), Thursday is forced to alter the ending of Jane Eyre! Isn’t the idea that a reader can enter a book, interact with characters and even change the ending irresistible to a book lover? That characters have lives of their own to live after we shut a book is the delightful premise that Fforde works with.

His books come with DVD-like extras: deleted scenes, the making of, and many special features. How could a book, you ask, possibly contain this? The extras are stored in Fforde’s richly-imagined and very expansive website where a password (usually the name of a character from the book in question) usually leads you to all these added DVD-like features.

Other kinds of inter-textual whimsy runs riot through his books: the endpapers carry bookplates, illustrations, and even advertisements (holiday character-exchange programmes: Rhett Butler and Scarlett inviting you to Tara for the weekend). The Jurisfiction Unit is a policing agency within the BookWorld that advertises for readers wishing to be inside books.

In The Well of Lost Plots, Thursday Next is a pregnant single mother hiding inside the plots of unpublished novels. This unusual but snug refuge is threatened when the authorities decide to control the number of plots. When this book was presented at the Hay festival, the festival director said the book “has the true Wodehousian joy of brilliant verbal playfulness, and seems genuinely and outrageously original. It’s a happy marriage of delightful intelligence and complete lunacy.”

Fforde’s plots contain more bibliophile japery: Hamlet has disappeared from his play in Something Rotten. To save her lover, Thursday must chase after an enemy inside Poe’s poem, The Raven. Readers must watch out for PageRunners — ‘the name given to describe any character that is out of his or her book and moves through the backstory (or more rarely the plot) of another book.’

It has been a while since we had any Thursday Next novels, and finishing up The Woman Who Died a Lot, the last instalment in the series, I came away with the feeling that Jasper Fforde’s imagination is effervescent and bottomless, and that it won’t be long before we meet Thursday Next again.