Paper Chase

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Thursday next is a detective in charge of solving crimes that happen in books. Which is to say, she literally goes into books and solves crimes there. If, say, somebody were to kidnap Jane Eyre out of Jane Eyre (which happened in The Eyre Affair, the first Thursday Next novel), Thursday would be on the case. This is what the British call silliness, and people generally find it either dismal or delightful. If you're in the latter camp, prepare to be delighted by Jasper Fforde's Something Rotten (Viking; 385 pages), the fourth book in the Next series.

This time Thursday is operating in the real world, pursuing a malevolent fictional character named Yorrick Kaine, who has managed to escape his native novel and is trying to become dictator of Britain. The narrative involves the Cheshire cat, cloned Neanderthals, Thursday's 2-year-old son (who is named, inevitably, Friday), time travel, Beowulf and Hamlet. We are also treated to the edifying spectacle of a hostile takeover of Hamlet by the characters of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Fun, but Fforde's cheerfulness is relentless. Genuine pathos can be found in the interplay between the world of fiction and its drabber, realer counterpart, but Fforde doesn't go looking for it. He is always charming company, and if he sometimes strays too far into fantasy, well, what's so great about reality? "If the real world were a book," Hamlet remarks, "it would never find a publisher."