Although Jasper Fforde's first novel is being categorized as a detective and mystery story by the publisher, it's not. It is pure science fiction alternative history like Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle Policing the more mundane or arcane crimes is the province of 30 departments making up the Special Operations Network. Thursday Next is an operative in SO-27, the Literary Detectives. Her father is a defrocked member of S0-12, the ChronoGuard, who shows himself to her every once in a while with a question or comment that seems somewhat anachronous, but is frequently a clue to what will happen.
SO-27's brief is to protect early editions of literary works and to detect forgeries. Thusday, a veteran of the eternal Crimean War, which is now, in 1985, in its 131st year, works out of London There are border skirmishes between England and the Socialist Republic of Wales, and breeding programs have brought back extinct species. In fact, Thursday's pet is a Dodo.
Thursday's uncle, Mycroft Next, has invented a machine which allows a person to enter his favorite work of literature. But it also allows one to remove a character from a work if one has the original manuscript. The ms for Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen, a character is extracted and killedk, and the LiteraTec is seconded to a secret SO and works to find the thief before there is any more irrevocable damage. Once the Dickens is safe, Jane Eyre is stolen, Jane kidnapped, and Next must restore the heroine before the first person narrative disappears for all time.
This is one of the best alternative history tales I have read. Fforde sets up a world that is only slightly skewed from our own, but one in which literature and art are revered and protected by the government. The book is full of referenes to many of the great works of English literature and British culture, and humorous asides, such as the worms to digest the work in quesiton and spit out extra punctuation marks. It is truly worth searching out.
This is a review of the UK paperback edition, published on 19 July 2001 by New English Library
Reviewed by Barbara Franchi, March 2002