English actor/novelist Fry (Moab Is My Washpot, 1999, etc.) offers a brilliant, biting, and hilarious account of a schoolboy prank that turns into an international incident and a private quest for vengeance.
Ned Maddstone is one of those straight-arrow types schoolboys can’t abide. A prefect at Eton, he is the son of a Tory cabinet minister and painfully conscious of his obligations to live up to his distinguished family’s expectations—in spite of the overwhelming dislike this engenders among his peers. When three of his classmates hit on the idea of planting marijuana on him and tipping off the Drug Squad, it seems like a richly earned comeuppance for his priggish ways. Unfortunately, the stakes turn out to be higher than even his worst detractors suspected—since Ned also had in his possession a confidential document that one of his schoolmasters (an IRA agent) had asked him to deliver. It’s obvious to the police inspector that Ned was merely a dupe, but his innocence is complicated by an unforeseen factor—the document implicates the inspector’s own mother. So Ned’s arrest is expunged from the record and word is leaked out that he’s been kidnapped—by the IRA. Ned himself is sent to a secret psychiatric hospital on the Continent, doped liberally with Thorazine, and told he’s suffering from delusions that he’s the son of the English politician Sir Charles Maddstone. A hell worthy of Evelyn Waugh? Exactly, though a fellow patient who’s an alumnus of MI-5 begins the laborious project of setting this lost young man on the way to figuring out who he really is—and how, finally, to make his persecutors pay, most richly indeed.
Engrossing from the start: one of the year’s most intelligent and entertaining stories.