In this case, "romp" is almost certainly le mot juste. The Eyre Affair -- Eyre, by the way, as in Jane Eyre -- neatly delivers alternate history, Monty Pythonesque comedy skits, Grand Guignol supervillains, thwarted lovers, po-mo intertextuality, political commentary, time travel, vampires, absent-minded inventors, a hard-boiled narrator and lots, lots more. In particular, the novel is saturated with the love of books, for in Jasper Fforde's reimagined England, classic literature holds roughly the same place that movies, pop music and religion do in our world.
So you know this is definitely a fantasy.
But not one about elves or sorcerers. Instead, think of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Tom Holt's Expecting Someone Taller, Terry Pratchett's DiscWorld novels, Maurice Richardson's Exploits of Englelbrecht, the dwarf surrealist wrestler, or Jay Russell's recent homage to children's classics and detective literature, Brown Harvest. The Eyre Affair may be funny peculiar, but it's definitely funny ha-ha too.
Thirty-six-year old Thursday Next is an agent in the Special Operations Network's Literary Detection branch, the division that tracks down manuscript forgers, keeps an eye out for "overtly free thespian interpretations" and generally oversees the book trade: "There were a lot of gullible people out there buying first editions of Byronic verse at knockdown prices, then complaining bitterly when they found out they were fakes." But Thursday's also a veteran of the disastrous Crimean War, which has been going on for more than a hundred years, as well as one of the few survivors of the Charge of the Light-Armored Brigade. Ten years after that debacle -- in which her brother was killed and the man she loved maimed -- Thursday is still carrying a lot of psychic baggage. But she's tough, resilient and as laconic as any detective named Spade or Archer.
She's also one of the few people alive who can recognize Acheron Hades, the third-most-wanted man on the planet. Think Prof. Moriarty, Hannibal Lecter and the nefarious wizard Voldemort rolled into one to gain an inkling of this master-criminal's debonair, courtly nastiness. SpecOps tracking the monster of evil never even dare refer to him, "because he can hear his own name -- even whispered -- over a thousand-yard radius, perhaps more. He uses it to sense our presence." Alas, when the manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen under the eye of surveillance cameras, the SpecOps quickly recognize some diabolical design of Hades and his "fiendish compatriots." What horror could they be meaning to perpetrate? What indeed?