This is the sixth installment in Fforde’s Thursday Next series, and if, like me, you haven’t read any of the previous books, you’ll probably be hella confused. The series’ titular heroine (wait, can I write that?) is a no-nonsense detective in a world of nonsense. Using the fantastic technology of Fforde’s parallel universe, she travels into the Bookworld, a sort of distillation of the collective consciousness, where plots both new and classical are acted out for the sake of anyone currently reading the book in question.
Since Next travels and works within the worlds of famous literary works, you can imagine there is plenty of opportunity for parody, punning, and tongue-in-cheek references of all kinds.
This much I knew going in. What I didn’t realize is that the “real world” of Thursday Next, outside of the Bookworld where she works alongside the Jurisfiction policing service, is also an elaborately imagined parallel universe from our own, sharing much of our literary canon (with occasional tweaks), but with a very different history and modern political organization. Randomly enough, the Crimean War continues into the 1980s, Wales is an independent republic (and the UK as a political entity does not exist), and both neanderthals and humanoid robots are commonplace sights. Quite apart from her adventures in the Bookworld, Thursday lives in interesting times.
What I also was surprised to find is that this latest book doesn’t feature Thursday Next, it features the “written” Thursday Next. I.e., a fictional version of the Next of the previous books, who popped into existence in the Bookworld when the real Thursday Next’s adventures were ghostwritten into a marginally popular book series of its own. This seemed rather meta to me, and took me awhile to figure out. Especially because I didn’t realize at first that the original Thursday Next wasn’t also fictional in the context of Fforde’s universe, and that the books haven’t been self-referential since the beginning of the series, i.e., the world of Fforde’s novels including the existence of his very own novels, in an infinite regress.
All this is a point in favour of not choosing this novel as your introduction to the series. But if you have read the previous books, you may wonder, how does this one stand up? Even though I can’t speak to that directly, I’ve read both of Fforde’s Nursery Crime novels (a third is upcoming), which are a spin-off from the Thursday Next series, and I devoured each in a day or two. Both proved satisfying crime stories with a streak of wicked humour. A world that includes serial killer gingerbread men and an alcoholic Humpty Dumpty does require a suspension of disbelief, but the absurdity never overpowered the whodunit narrative.
In One of Our Thursdays is Missing, however, I had some difficulty keeping track of what was going on, and as a result never really got hooked the way I was with these previous novels. The clever literary references are still there, of course. Thursday finds herself on the trail of a missing cabbie named Gatsby. “I didn’t know the Great Gatsby drove a cab,” she says. “No, not him, his brother. The mediocre Gatsby.” But the convolutions of the Bookworld, not to mention Fforde’s very weird “real world”, gave me too much to keep track of to be able to follow the mystery at the same time.
It seemed like the world-building took over and the plot took a backseat. Since everything was equally unusual/suspicious, I couldn’t follow the logic of what Thursday was thinking or doing, or the trail she was following, and as a result it felt less like figuring out the solution of a puzzle along with the hero than simply being told in narrative that the puzzle had been solved. And really, it’s a bit of a disappointment to read a Thursday Next book that turns out not to star Thursday Next. Though the written Thursday Next is sympathetic enough, she’s a bit too passive for a starring role.
I still love the concept of this series, but I’m sorry that this particular book wasn’t a little easier for me to get into. It’s not bad, by any means; it certainly wasn’t a slog to finish, it just wasn’t a stand-out for me.
Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2011) The Sleeping Hedgehog