The Special Operations Network was instigated to handle policing duties considered either too unusual or too specialized to be tackled by the regular force. There were thirty departments in all, starting at the more mundane Neighborly Disputes (SO-30) and going onto Literary Detectives (SO-27) and Art Crime (SO-24). Anything below SO-20 was restricted information, although it was common knowledge that the ChronoGuard was SO-12 and Antiterrorism SO-9. It is rumored that SO-1 was the department that polices the SpecOps themselves. Quite what the others do is anyone's guess. What'is known is that the individual operatives themselves are mostly exmilitary or ex-police and slightly unbalanced. "If you want to be a SpecOp," the saying goes, "act kinda weird.”
MILLON DE FLOSS
—A Short History of the Special Operations Network
The Eyre Affair">The Eyre Affair is Jasper Fforde’s first novel. It’s also first in a series of books that follow the adventures of Thursday Next, Literary Detective. I enjoyed it and look forward to reading more books in the series.
You may recall my earlier reviews of books in his Nursery Crimes series (The Big Over Easy and The Fourth Bear). Like those books, the Eyre Affair takes place in a world like ours, but with with a much thinner veil between fantasy and reality.
It’s a world where time travel is possible, and crimes can take place at various points in the time stream. It’s the ChronoGuards’ job to fix it. Next’s father is a member of that elite group though they now consider him an outlaw (if “now” even makes sense as a description for those who pop in and out in time).
"I was in 78 recently," he announced. "I brought you this."
He handed me a single by the Beatles. I didn't recognize the title.
"Didn't they split in '70?"
"Not always. How are things?"
"Nelson and Wellington, two great English national heroes both being shot early on during their most important and decisive battles."
“What are you suggesting?"
"That French revisionists might be involved."
"But it didn't affect the outcome of either battle," 1 asserted. "We still won on both occasions!"
"I never said they were good at it."
"Motorcycle's gone," remarked Colonel Rutter. His second-in-command grunted in reply. He didn't approve of non-Chronos attempting his work. They had managed to maintain the job mysticism for over five decades with the wages to suit; have-ago heroes could only serve to weaken people's undying trust in what they did. It wasn't a difficult job; it just took a long time. He had mended a similar rent in spacetime that had opened up in Weybridge's municipal park just between the floral clock and the bandstand. The job itself had taken ten minutes; he had simply walked in and stuck a tennis ball across the hole while outside seven months flashed by—seven months on double pay plus privileges, thank you very much.
Their role and existence calls to mind the Temporal Cold War from Star Trek: Enterprise.
Artistic and Literary fans get into militant conflicts regarding their passion.
There was violence when surrealism was banned and there was violence as the same ban was lifted. Grubb continued his broadcast as he intercepted a policeman marching away a youth dressed in sixteenth-century garb with a faithful reproduction of the "Hand of God" from the Sistine chapel tattooed on his face.
Beyond that, in this time stream England and Whales are hostile neighbors with a battlefield border between them, and England is still at war with Russia in the Crimea.
It’s not clear if those are due to an error in the time stream or not, but to the characters in the book they appear to be perfectly normal.
And while we are building a world with strange wars, time travel, literary riots, Shakespeare vending machines, seemingly invulnerable criminals, why not also throw in genetically engineered and cloned pets, along with vampires and werewolves?
They, plus blimp travel all make an appearance in this novel.
I’m unclear on whether or not the Fforde’s Nursery Crime novels exist in the same universe because the England of Jack Spratt’s world seems very different. With the time stream issues, however, anything is possible. And there are references to Spratt and his car in this book.
"Daft name," grumbled Mycroft. "Like Landen Parke-Laine, come to that. Can I get down? It's time for Jack Spratt's Casebook."
The first occasion was on a road somewhere in the Home Counties. It looked like winter, and ahead of us a lime-green Austin Allegro estate pulled out from slip road. I swerved and drove past at great speed, sounding my horn angrily. That image collapsed abruptly and fragmented itself into the dirty hold of a ship. The car was wedged between two packing cases, the closest of which was bound for Shanghai.
Fforde has a lot going on in the background of this novel, including random scenes that will no doubt come into play in later books. Yet astonishingly he makes it work. I would not have expected that and would not have recommended it to an author attempting to write a book like this. And I guess that’s why I write reviews as a hobby instead of writing novels as a profession.
This book centers around the rare ability for people to cross over into a novel. Once they are in that novel world, they become part of the story and their presence, of course, can change it. If they drop into the original manuscript, every copy printed will change to reflect their presence.
This first happens to Thursday Next when she is a little girl. She accidentally falls into Jane Eyre at the point where Jane and Rockefeller first meet.
The dog ignored the figure on the stile but stopped dead in his tracks when he saw me. His tail wagged enthusiastically and he bounded over, sniffing me inquisitively, his hot breath covering me in a warm cloak and his whiskers tickling my cheek. I giggled and the dog wagged his tail even harder. He had sniffed along this hedge during every single reading of the of the book for over 130 years, but had never come across anything that smelled so, well... real. He licked me several times with great affection. I giggled again and pushed him away, so he ran off to find a stick.
I returned to the museum a few times after that but the magic never worked again. My mind had closed too much by the time I was twelve, already a young woman. I only ever spoke of it to my uncle, who nodded sagely and believed every word. I never told anyone else. Ordinary adults don't like children to speak of things that are denied them by their own gray minds.
The rest of the book centers around a machine that let’s people go into novels and kidnap characters. If I get into anymore depth than that I’ll be in spoiler territory. You can refer to the publisher’s synopsis at the end of this post.
The great thing about this book, though, is not just the story. It’s about being immersed in this deep, wacky, off-kilter, and dark world that Fforde builds for us. He even throws in what appears to be references to The Watchmen in character names.
"I have with me Detective Inspector Oswald Mandias, Yorkshire CID. Tell me. Inspector, do you think this crime is in any way connected to the Chuzzlewit theft?"
“What is there to forgive?" demanded Roch. “Forgive and concentrate on living. Life for you is short; far too short to allow small jealousies to infringe on the happiness which can be yours only for the briefest of times."
The book doesn’t have the same refinement and polish we see in the The Big Over Easy and The Fourth Bear. Occasionally the plot can get a bit murky. That’s a reflection of this book being written earlier in Fforder’s career.
That’s said, it’s a fantastic book. It’s funny. It’s got compelling characters, surprising depth on some of the secondary characters, a fascinating story, and great writing. I have the next book in the Next series already on my shelf and look forward to cracking the cover.
If you enjoy reading weird things that turn the universe upside down then you should read The Eyre Affair">The Eyre Affair.
You can read more book review here.
Here is the back cover synopsis of The Eyre Affair.
Great Britain circa 1985: time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously. Baconians are trying to convince the world that Francis Bacon really wrote Shakespeare, there are riots between the Surrealists and Impressionists, and thousands of men are named John Milton, an homage to the real Milton and a very confusing situation for the police. Amidst all this, Acheron Hades, Third Most Wanted Man In the World, steals the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit and kills a minor character, who then disappears from every volume of the novel ever printed! But that's just a prelude.
Hades' real target is the beloved Jane Eyre, and it's not long before he plucks her from the pages of Bronte's novel. Enter Thursday Next. She's the Special Operative's renowned literary detective, and she drives a Porsche. With the help of her uncle Mycroft's Prose Portal, Thursday enters the novel to rescue Jane Eyre from this heinous act of literary homicide. It's tricky business, all these interlopers running about Thornfield, and deceptions run rampant as their paths cross with Jane, Rochester, and Miss Fairfax. Can Thursday save Jane Eyre and Bronte's masterpiece? And what of the Crimean War? Will it ever end? And what about those annoying black holes that pop up now and again, sucking things into time-space voids.
Suspenseful and outlandish, absorbing and fun, The Eyre Affair">The Eyre Affair is a caper unlike any other and an introduction to the imagination of a most distinctive writer and his singular fictional universe. Next up in the Thursday Next series: Lost in a Good Book">Lost in a Good Book. Read more about it at thursdaynext.com.