Literary detective is back solving crazy cases

"First Among Sequels: A Thursday Next Novel," by Jasper Fforde; Viking; $24.95

There is simply so much you don't know about fiction: Thomas Hardy's novels used to be hilarious, but someone made off with the humor. There was once a shocking outbreak of sensible behavior in "Othello." Only 15 pianos exist in literature, and so they must be endlessly shuffled from "Bleak House" to "The Mill on the Floss" to "Heart of Darkness" and so on. Mistakes happen; one piano ended up in Miss Bates' parlor in "Emma," and Frank Churchill had to take the rap for dumping it there.

Such unsettling events occur regularly in Bookworld, born in the furiously agile imagination of Jasper Fforde, creator of Thursday Next of Jurisfiction, a literary detective whose adventures stretch uproariously across four novels ("The Eyre Affair," "Lost in a Good Book," "The Well of Lost Plots" and "Something Rotten").

Fforde has shaken up genres — fantasy, comedy, crime, sci-fi, parody, literary criticism — and come up with a superb mishmash with lots of affectionate in-jokes for any book lover.

In the aptly titled "First Among Sequels" — tough call, but there's a good chance it's the best of Fforde's novels — Thursday is no longer working Spec-Ops, or at least not to her husband's knowledge. He thinks she's laying carpet, but she's still leaping in and out of assorted prose and contending with nonliterary mayhem.

The genre wars continue, with Racy Novel's threats to drop a dirty bomb into "Mrs. Dalloway." Time may be coming to an end. The ruling Commonsense Party is running up an ominously high Stupidity Surplus ("Instead of drifting from one crisis to the next and appeasing the nation with a steady stream of knee-jerk legislation and headline-grabbing but arguably pointless initiatives, they had been resolutely building a raft of considered long-term plans that concentrated on unity, fairness, and tolerance").

Worst of all is the introduction of Reality Book Shows, which will rewrite the classics based on audience approval. First up: "Pride and Prejudice."

Fforde, also author of the even sillier Nursery Crimes series, is not even close to running out of targets. His satire is relentless and inspired; even his throwaway one-liners hit home: "The MAWk-15H virus has once again resurfaced in Dickens, particularly in the Death of Little Nell, which is now so uncomfortably saccharine that even our own dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell complained."

Thursday may face a threat against reading in the Bookworld, but in the real world, thanks to the witty Fforde, she can rest assured that the demise of the book has never seemed more unlikely.