THE EYRE AFFAIR

By Jasper Fforde

Viking. 374 pp. $23.95

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?

The real charm of The Eyre Affair lies in its pervasive Alice in Wonderland background. Fanatical Baconians knock on doors to hand out pamphlets and try to convince you that Shakespeare didn't write "Hamlet." Kids trade Henry Fielding bubble-gum cards ("I'll swap you one Sophia for an Amelia"). If you drop a coin in a jukebox, its speakers will intone beautifully recited poetry. "Richard III" has been running for 15 years at one provincial theater, and each Saturday night, members of the audience -- who know the play by heart -- are recruited for the major roles. People keep dodos -- cloned in laboratories -- as pets. LiteraTec operatives are sometimes killed during bookbuys that go wrong. And artistic riots make the nightly news:

"Things are a bit hot down here, Brian. . . This evening several hundred Raphaelites surrounded N'est Pas Une Pipe public house where a hundred neosurrealists have barricaded themselves in. The demonstrators outside chanted Italian Renaissance slogans and then stones and missiles were thrown. The neosurrealists responded by charging the lines protected by large soft watches and seemed to be winning until the police moved in."

The reporter sidles up to a rioter "dressed in sixteenth-century garb with a faithful reproduction of the 'Hand of God' from the Sistine Chapel tatooed on his face."

" 'Excuse me, sir, how would you counter the criticism that you are an intolerant bunch with little respect for the value of change and experimentation in all aspects of art?' "

The angry youth scowls at the camera.

" 'People say we're just Renaissancites causing trouble, but I've seen Baroque kids, Raphaelites, Romantics and Mannerists here tonight. It's a massive show of classical artistic unity against these frivolous bastards who cower beneath the safety of the word "progress." ' "

As Thursday pursues Acheron Hades, she encounters a slew of ever more improbable characters: a dreadlocked vampire-hunter named Spike, her own time-traveling, temporally confused father, Goliath Corporation's sinister operative Jack Schitt and, not least, Edward Rochester, the beloved of Jane Eyre. Yes, that Rochester. But how can this be? Eventually, Thursday learns that "the barriers between reality and fiction are softer than we think," and occasionally people wander out of books -- or into them. Which means that if someone, say Acheron Hades, were able to descend into the original manuscript of an established classic, he could change its entire story. Yet why would Hades want to do this? Unless it had some connection with the powerful plasma rifles being developed for the Crimean War. . . .

Need I say any more about The Eyre Affair? Except, perhaps, to add that solving these and other mysteries will take Thursday Next into communist-controlled Wales and even stranger realms.

So, Dear Reader, suspend your disbelief, find a quiet corner and just surrender to the storytelling voice of the unstoppable, ever-resourceful Thursday Next:

"My father had a face that could stop a clock. I don't mean that he was ugly or anything; it was a phrase the ChronoGuard used to describe someone who had the power to reduce time to an ultraslow trickle."

Oh yes. One last bit of good news: Report has it that Thursday will soon be back in other adventures. Some of us can hardly wait. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Thursday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.