Happy NowBy Charles Higson (Abacus; 1993/99)

Here’s a fiendishly clever psycho thriller from the author of the overrated KING OF THE ANTS. I found that book, Charles Higson’s debut (made into an equally underwhelming film by Stuart Gordon), a rather pedestrian revenge thriller only somewhat enlivened by crisp writing, unflinching violence and a memorably vivid depiction of life in the UK circa 1991. Thankfully HAPPY NOW, Charles Higson’s equally English-centric follow-up, is a far better book overall, equal to best work of authors like Iain Banks and Patricia Highsmith.

It starts out slowly with Tom Kendall, a severely maladjusted lughead, stewing in his own juices during an unsuccessful sojourn in anger management. The action picks up with the arrival of Will Summers, a teenage psycho convinced he’s found the key to happiness…by breaking into peoples’ houses, playing with himself and then stealing their belongings for display in his personal shrine, all of which he laboriously writes about in his diary. Tom, meanwhile, is staying with his saintly sister Lucy and abusive brother-in-law James.

All this is just the lead-in to an extremely involved set-up that finds Will breaking into Lucy and James’ house while all the above are inside, where he inadvertently kills James and then flees the scene. But he unknowingly leaves behind his diary, which is discovered by Tom, who enthusiastically devours it after alighting on the words “I am happy now.” Does Will’s diary really contain the secret to True Happiness? Tom seems to think so, and becomes determined to track down Will, an odyssey that brings all of Tom’s darkest instincts to the surface with deadly consequences for everyone.

That’s a pretty outrageous premise, but Higson makes it work with his cunningly wrought narrative and unerring eye for the telling details that make up day-to-day life in modern England. What really makes the book what it is, however, are the unerringly well drawn characters. This includes the deranged Will and the on-the-edge Tom, as well as subsidiary folks like Tom’s relatives and Will’s aggrieved mother, all of whom play important roles in the horrific climax. Call this book an unusually perceptive study of suburban madness or an above-average gross-out potboiler, but it’s definitely something unique and unprecedented that I recommend to one and all.