Revenge may be sweet, but it's a sugar high. In the end, you're left with nothing but a bad taste in your mouth. Take it from Ned Maddstone, whose intricate web of retribution wins him the most hollow of victories in Stephen Fry's thriller, Revenge (Random House, 316 pages, $23.95).
In a clever retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, Fry -- the British author and comic actor (he was the inspector in Gosford Park) -- morphs Alexander Dumas' world into the present. Like Dumas' Edmund Dantes, Fry's Ned Maddstone is a naive, young man who, through jealousy, treachery and plain, old bad luck, winds up secreted away in an island prison for nearly 20 years. But Maddstone's prison is no dungeon. He's held hostage in a Swedish mental hospital where he's drugged and therapized into believing his name is Thomas and Ned Maddstone is merely a psychotic delusion.
The fun starts when Thomas / Ned hooks up with Babe, a longtime patient who's the sanest and smartest one there. He's also the most interesting character in the book and steals the pages like Julia Roberts steals the screen. Babe makes it his mission to get Thomas in touch with his inner Ned and then spends years teaching him everything he knows, which is encyclopedic. The old man dies and the no-longer naive Maddstone escapes into a changed, new world. Fry uses his sly humor to show this world through Maddstone's eyes. Particularly funny is a scene involving cell phones.
Fry ups the satiric ante by turning Maddstone into a dot-com billionaire. It's with that vast fortune that Maddstone returns to England to exact his revenge. But like the dot.com burst, the pleasures of revenge hold only false promise.
At its best, Angel Rock (Knopf, 303 pages, $23) is a darkly atmospheric, haunting novel that marries the word literary to thriller. At its worst, which isn't that often, it's bloated and confusing with too many dream scenes.
But it's worth reading, especially if you're a Daphne du Maurier fan. Like du Maurier, Australian writer Darren Williams knows the meaning of menace. A 4-year-old boy goes missing after he and his brother get lost in the Australian Outback. The older boy, 12-year-old Tom Ferry, returns to his hometown of Angel Rock with no memory of what happened to his brother, Flynn. A few days later an Angel Rock teen commits suicide in Sydney and the tortured detective who works her case goes to Angel Rock to discover the truth. His, hers -- and Flynn's.
Williams writes with a visceral beauty. Consider the moment Tom realizes he's in love: "It washed over him, a rare and awful feeling, bought with blood, but all the more fierce for that."
English writer Mark Billingham has come up with a new twist to the twisted mind of a psychopath. The bad guy in Sleepy Head (William Morrow, 320 pages. $24.95) doesn't want to kill, he wants to create a waking death through stroke -- "locked-in syndrome," neurologists call it. When the book opens, three people are already dead from his botched attempts. His lone "success" is Alison Willetts, who is cognizant, but can't move a muscle except to blink her eyes.
Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, a tough, flawed London cop, finds himself taunted by anonymous messages from the perp, obsessing over the victims and falling in love with Anne Coburn, one of Alison's doctors. As the body count rises and his bosses lose faith in him, Thorne sticks to the case with vigilante zeal.
The plot is taut and Billingham elevates the chill factor by taking us into both the mind of the psychopath, without tipping his identity, and Alison, his locked-in victim. An exciting debut novel.
Michael McGarrity's The Big Gamble (Dutton, 272 pages, $23.95) is a just-the-facts-ma'am kind of mystery that reads like a documentary. And why not? McGarrity, a former deputy sheriff for Sante Fe County, also taught at the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy and worked as an investigator for the public defender's office.
In spare prose with even sparer characters, McGarrity tells the story of Deputy Sheriff Clayton Isee who's trying to solve the murders of two people found in the charred remains of an abandoned fruit stand. One of the victims is a woman who's been missing for years from across the state in Sante Fe. Isee is forced to team up with the police chief there, a white man named Kevin Kerney. Kerney, it seems, recently told Isee that he is his biological father. Isee, who takes pride in his Indian heritage, is not happy with the revelation. But McGarrity's streamlined approach to character development leaves this relationship, as well as others, sketchy.