Policing books – from the inside


Vikas Datta in his weekly column Bookends on policing books – from the inside

BookshelfIn this universe, England is now a republic and the United Kingdom doesn’t exist (next door is the Socialist Republic of Wales), the Crimean War raged until 1985, time travel, cloning and genetic engineering exist (dodos are common household pets and Neanderthals resurrected) but not personal computers or jet aircraft, cheese is exorbitantly costly, a shadowy corporation exerts great influence, and literature, especially classical, is revered – and has an entire police department devoted to its service.

Then we learn there is a dimension within literature where all books are “constructed” and also house the characters who, aware they are in a book, act out their roles when being read but live their own lives the rest of the time. And the line between these two worlds can be crossed – by some.

This is the setting for the seven volume (so far) Thursday Next series, a rollicking meta-fictional, fourth-wall breaking romp through books, genres and tropes – classics, police procedurals, espionage, science fiction, comic fantasy, conspiracy theories, apocalyptic scenarios and even fairy tales – as author Jasper Fforde (b.1961) delves into the workings of imagination and literary inspiration, the relationship between fiction and its audience and the mechanics (and magic) of reading.

“The Eyre Affair” (2001) introduces the doughty, appealing and resourceful Thursday Next, a 36-year-old single, Crimean War veteran, working in 1985 London with SpecOps 27, the Literary Detectives (or ‘LiteraTecs’), the agency responsible for dealing with forged or stolen manuscripts and literary works. Wounded in an attempt to capture mysterious criminal mastermind Acheron Hades, she seeks a transfer to hometown Swindon (on the advice of a future version of herself).

Hades has meanwhile begun to kidnap characters from fiction for ransom – with Jane Eyre his latest victim. Thursday finds a way into the book and in a fiery encounter on Thornfield Hall’s roof, kills Hades while also rewriting the ending to reunite Jane and Rochester (or the version we know). She later also ends the Crimean War, traps her unwanted Goliath Corporation partner in an Edgar Allan Poe poem, and marries her estranged fiancee.

The series really kicks in with “Lost in a Good Book” (2002), where Goliath have eradicated her husband from the timeline to blackmail her into rescuing their trapped operative. Learning to read herself into a book, Thursday finds herself in the 26-floor Great Library, which contains all published English books, and is inducted into the book world’s police – “JurisFiction”, which comprises operatives both fictional such as the Cheshire Cat (now the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat due to redrawing of county boundaries), and non-fictional. She does Goliath’s bidding but is double-crossed, while there is Hades’ vengeance-seeking sister, an insidious political conspiracy and a looming end of the world to be dealt with.

Facing multiple threats in her world, Thursday, now pregnant, takes refuge in an unfinished detective novel in “The Well of Lost Plots” (2003), or a 26-level world beneath the Great Library where unpublished or unfinished works exist. There she has to keep her memory of her missing husband alive, train a couple of generics, and unearth what the ‘Book Operating System’s’ latest upgrade will entail for reading.

After two years as JurisFiction chief, she heads back to the real world with her two-year-old son Friday in “Something Rotten” (2004). Tagging along is Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, on a fact-finding mission. But out there, another huge political conspiracy is on, getting her husband back is tricky, her mother is hosting guests like Otto von Bismarck, she ends up being targeted by an assassin and the Minotaur, and the fate of her country and the world depend on her surviving a trip to the Underworld and winning a croquet match (here it is not the genteel sport you were thinking).

The next three, set over a decade in the future, comprise a new arc, slightly edgier and much more confusing with paradoxes of time travel and identity abounding. “First Among Sequels” (2008) deals with her struggle to convince her son, “now a teenage cliche” to take a job, tackle dramatically plunging attention spans that impinge reading and deal with her two book versions. She even doesn’t appear until the end in “One of our Thursdays is Missing” (2011), where the narrator is her book version. “The Woman Who Died a Lot (2012)” sees a recuperating Thursday deal with a new set of problems including a revived Goliath. The story will continue in “Dark Reading Matter” but its current status is unclear.

Don’t dismiss Thursday’s exploits as a book-lover’s wildest dreams come true or a multitude of puns, also read them for a trenchant satire on issues like corporate greed, our celebrity-obsessed, reality show watching culture, devious politics, proliferating bureaucracy and other ills of our world!