The Eyre Affair
Published by Viking
374 pages, 2002
Next Time Around
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
A novel about society's relationship to novels, Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair quotes in form and substance from a half-dozen fiction genres. Yet this debut novel featuring the coyly named detective Thursday Next is very much its own book -- delightfully playful, while commanding serious attention.
Fforde grafts elements of science fiction (time travel, mad scientists) onto the plot of a police procedural and delivers his story in the disarmingly chatty first-person narrative style that propelled the diaries of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones onto the bestseller lists ("so often Mr. Right turned out to be either Mr. Liar, Mr. Drunk, or Mr. Already Married"). While the book's title invokes classic British fiction from more than a century ago, specifically Charlotte Brontë's gothic romance, Jane Eyre, and the classic crime fiction "affairs" related by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this novel is far less historical than futuristic.
The Eyre Affair -- at least good parts of it -- transpires in late-20th-century England. But this England belongs to a parallel universe that diverged from the one we know sometime during the late 19th century. The Crimean War between England and Russia continues. Cars exist, but prop and jet planes, if invented, were never popularized; air travel is by dirigible. Advances in cloning enable people to enjoy previously extinct animals -- such as the dodo -- as household pets. A few individuals have evolved time-travel abilities, and despite government restrictions, employ their gift for fun and profit. Great literature has become part of pop culture. Homeless people recite classic poetry on street corners for tips. Well-heeled tourists hire time-traveling guides to sneak them into their favorite novels, where they lurk in the background and snap photos. Criminals snatch original manuscripts and hold them for fantastic ransoms.
Thursday Next works as an operative with the Literary Detectives, one of several government Special Operations groups that police this strange society. The scope of the Literary Detectives is usually limited to protecting original manuscripts and first editions from theft and ransom schemes, but in The Eyre Affair, Thursday finds herself pursuing a time-traveling archfiend into the text of a novel itself.
The manuscript of Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit has been snatched from its bulletproof display case in a small literary museum. The thief is a master who evaded the surveillance camera, leaving only one tantalizing clue: a tiny distortion in the glass display case, a mark significant only to people familiar with time travel. Thursday spots it immediately, thanks to the influence of her father. Once a respected officer in the police ChronoGuard, he's now an outlaw time traveler who pops by to visit Thursday at odd moments, freezing time to prevent anyone from observing their meetings.
But it's not family connections that win Thursday an invitation to join the elite SO-5 unit investigating the Chuzzlewit theft. She's invited because she is one of the few investigators capable of recognizing the elusive suspect, Acheron Hades. She studied English with Hades before he abandoned academia for a career in literary crime, marked by extreme violence. Investigators warn Thursday that her former professor has "certain baffling powers," among them the abilities to hear his own name spoken at great distance and to remain a mere blur if photographed or videotaped. Forty-two murders are attributed to Hades, including the deaths of 36 police.
Thursday is unimpressed. "None of us were surprised when [Hades] switched to a career of crime," she coolly informs her fellow agents. "He was something of a lech."
Thursday and an SO-5 investigator stake out the apartment of Hades' brother and partner in crime, Styx, but her impulsive attempt to nab Hades leads to disaster. Her colleague is killed and Thursday is wounded, while Hades, fleeing the scene, apparently burns in a car crash, along with the Chuzzlewit manuscript. During the unpleasant official inquiry that follows, Thursday describes to the skeptical authorities how Hades assumed the shapes of a little old lady and a police operative, how he attempted to recruit her and how, when his attempt failed, he shot her and left her for dead. What she doesn't reveal to anyone is a visit by two time travelers from the future, who appear in a sports car in her hospital room and tell her that Acheron Hades is still alive, and that she must follow his trail to Swindon. Nor does she explain that after Hades shot her, her life was saved by Edward Fairfax Rochester, better known as the character of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre.
Ordinarily I would not have believed that Rochester could have torn himself from the pages of Jane Eyre and come to my aid that night; such a thing is, of course, quite impossible. I might have dismissed the whole thing as a ludicrously complicated prank had it not been for one thing: Edward Rochester and I had met once before ...
Following the advice of the time travelers, Thursday asks to be reassigned to the Literary Detectives squad in her hometown of Swindon. There she encounters an old flame, the dashing Landen Park-Laine, who seems desperate to know if their romance can be rekindled. Thursday also gets to know Jack Schitt (this is Fforde's choice of names, not mine) from the Advanced Weapons Division of the immensely powerful Goliath Corporation. Goliath owns Toad News, Europe's major TV network, and finances the Crimean War effort. Schitt is also on the trail of Hades, and like Thursday, is sure that the archfiend survived that earlier car crash. But any alliance between these two is impossible. "The Goliath Corporation was to altruism what Genghis Khan was to soft furnishings," Thursday observes.
Swindon brings Thursday back into contact with her family, including her charmingly absent-minded mother and her eccentric Aunt Polly and Uncle Mycroft (his name echoing that of Sherlock Holmes' brilliant brother). Mycroft is an inventor whose latest effort is a prose portal that allows people to enter works of literature. This, of course, attracts the elusive Hades. With the portal, he could hold not just manuscripts but literary characters for ransom -- threatening to kill off characters and alter the plot, which would cause all printed versions of a book to spontaneously rewrite themselves. After Mycroft foils Hades' attempt to change Chuzzlewit, Hades employs the portal to instead take liberties with Jane Eyre. While thousands of readers watch their copies of the book rewrite themselves, Thursday pursues Hades through Brontë's story in an attempt to protect the novel from his extreme revisionism -- and in spite of her own conviction that the beloved classic has "a crap ending." Fforde tactfully comes to the aid of readers who haven't read Jane Eyre recently by having Thursday summarize the plot for her colleague Cable Bowden ("I studied Wuthering Heights and Villette instead," he explains) as they speed to the scene of a crime.
Fforde's proclivity for silly names (Thursday's boss in Swindon is Colonel Braxton Hicks) may leave some readers groaning, but in context it's as disarming as it is annoying. Here's a first-time author who has managed to write erudite crime fiction without a whit of pretension and who can be as silly as all-get-out while still creating a tough, brainy protagonist you care about, whether she's shooting it out with an arch-criminal or making a fool of herself in front of her ex-boyfriend's fiancée. You can't go wrong with The Eyre Affair, and those eager to know what happens to Thursday next can look forward to the second book in the series, Lost in a Good Book, scheduled for release in Britain this summer. | April 2002
Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.