The Stars' Tennis Balls

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The Stars' Tennis Balls
Author Stephen Fry
Cover artist Artist Partners
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Thriller, Novel
Publisher Hutchinson
Publication date
29 September 2000
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 388 pp (Hardcover edition)
371 pp (Paperback edition)
ISBN ISBN 0-09-180151-6 (Hardcover edition)
ISBN 0-09-179388-2 (Paperback edition)
OCLC 45886322

The Stars' Tennis Balls is a psychological thriller novel by Stephen Fry, first published in 2000. In the United States, the title was changed to Revenge. The story is a modern adaptation of Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, which was in turn based on a contemporary urban legend.

The original title comes from a quotation taken from John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, which reads: "We are merely the stars' tennis balls, struck and bandied which way please them." The novel is dedicated "To M'Colleague" (meaning Hugh Laurie, "M'Colleague" being the name by which Fry and Laurie referred to each other in their TV show A Bit of Fry and Laurie).

Plot summary[edit]

In 1980, Ned (Edward) Maddstone, is a seventeen-year-old schoolboy who appears to be the sort of person for whom everything goes right. He is head boy, talented at sports, and following in the footsteps of his father towards Oxford University and a career in politics. Things begin to go wrong for the main character when his schoolfriend Ashley Barson-Garland discovers that Maddstone has secretly read part of his diary and therefore knows his dark secret, namely that he is ashamed of his working class roots. The clever Barson-Garland plots to besmirch Maddstone's good fortune with an arrest for possession of marijuana with the help of Rufus Cade, who is jealous of Maddstone's good looks and popularity, and Gordon Fendeman, the Jewish American cousin of Portia, who he is also in love with and to whom he believes (along with her non-practicing Jewish parents) it is wrong for her to marry outside the Jewish faith.

Unfortunately, when Maddstone is arrested, an envelope is discovered in his pocket, entrusted to him by his dying sailing instructor, which turns out to be a coded message from the Irish Republican Army. He is whisked away from the police station by a smooth Secret Services operative called Oliver Delft, who listens calmly to Maddstone's explanation of events until he reveals the address to which he was asked to deliver the envelope, which is of Delft's mother, Philippa Blackrow, and would reveal his hidden ancestral relationship to a Fenian traitor. So, Delft callously decides that Maddstone must disappear. Maddstone is beaten up, pumped full of drugs, and taken away to a remote lunatic asylum on an island off the coast of Sweden. For many years, it is impressed on him by Dr. Mallo, the resident psychiatrist, that his memories of his life as Ned Maddstone are false and merely the product of a diseased mind. An unknown number of years pass, during which time Maddstone starts to believe the mind-programming that Dr. Mallo subjects him to. It is at this time, however, that Dr. Mallo deems him "well enough" to fraternise with other inmates, and Maddstone begins to talk to a fellow Englishman called Babe. Babe informs Maddstone that instead of the three or four years which Maddstone estimated he had been inside the asylum, a whole decade had in fact passed. This revelation shocks Maddstone, but from then on he and Babe talk together every day.

The two men become close friends and generally give each other hope. Over the course of almost another decade Babe educates Maddstone, helping him to master the game of chess and teaching him to speak multiple languages among other things. Eventually, Maddstone realises that he is indeed the son of Sir Charles Maddstone and, with Babe's help, laterally determines who betrayed him and how, although he is still baffled as to why he was imprisoned on the island. When Ned mentions the name of Oliver Delft, however, Babe is able to recall a list of IRA sympathisers that he once briefly saw thanks to his photographic memory, leading Ned to learn the true nature of the conspiracy. Several weeks after this revelation, Babe dies of a heart attack, having first devised a way in which Maddstone might escape to the mainland by hiding in his intended coffin. Once free, he sells some prescription drugs stolen from the asylum to a dealer in Hamburg in exchange for a German passport and, as directed by Babe, travels to Switzerland, to visit a bank and gains access to an account in which Babe had deposited large sums of stolen money (which has also accrued many years' worth of interest).

Thus, by the year 2000, Maddstone has become fabulously wealthy (to the tune of £324 million). Assuming the identity of Simon Cotter, he swiftly becomes famous as a mysterious Internet entrepreneur, making huge profits by investing in high-risk ventures. He then returns to England and wreaks his revenge on everyone who caused him to be imprisoned in the asylum. First, he ensures that the two men who beat him up when he was first taken, themselves now in prison, are thoroughly beaten by the prison guards, humiliated and robbed of all privilege and power, which will make their last year before release a living Hell as they have made many enemies. At around the same time, Albert Fendeman, the seventeen year-old son of Gordon and Portia, now married, starts to work for, Maddstone's multi-million pound business, even becoming a personal acquaintance of Maddstone.

Next, Maddstone engineers events that lead Rufus Cade - who has by now had several failed marriages and is a regular drugs user - to unwittingly sell sherbet to a group of Turkish dealers expecting a large quantity of cocaine. These dealers arrive at Cade's flat moments after Maddstone has visited Cade and divulged his true identity and purpose, as well as sarcastically telling Cade that the only thing he can do to make things right, and therefore save himself, is to build a time machine and stop the seventeen year-old Maddstone's arrest from ever taking place. Cade is brutally mutilated by the dealers and left by Maddstone to bleed to death over the course of an hour.

After Cade's murder Ashley Barson-Garland, who in the years Maddstone spent in the asylum has become a backbench MP for the Conservative Party - and who is seen as a rising star in the party as a result of his vocal and somewhat popular stance in favour of censorship of the internet in the name of preserving family values - is targeted by Maddstone. Barson-Garland presents his own television programme entitled Threat of the Net, on which he puts forward his views on internet censorship. On one episode of this programme, a young woman who helped Maddstone to sell the stolen asylum drugs in Hamburg and who now works for him succeeds in revealing that Barson-Garland regularly views, and masturbates to, sexual images and videos of under-age boys. Barson-Garland flees the television studio and returns to his home. On his laptop, he reads a message sent to him by Maddstone that taunts and reviles him before a file appears on the computer filled with pornographic videos of under-age boys. As the police arrive, and Maddstone reveals his involvement via an online message, Barson-Garland kills himself, unable to live with the shame.

Next Maddstone acquaints himself with the household of Oliver Delft, who has by now left the Intelligence Service. While paying a morning visit to the Delft family, who all live in Delft's mother's house, Maddstone offers Delft a job, which Delft accepts. Maddstone also tells Philippa Blackrow, in secret, who he is and what he suffered on her account, believing that this will torture her until she dies. However, unknown to Maddstone, Blackrow is ecstatic. That day, Maddstone flies to Africa, where Gordon Fendeman spent time five years prior before founding a highly successful business. On his return, Maddstone destroy's Fendeman reputation by publicly relaying the truth of what happened while he was in Africa: Fendeman negotiated and subsequently reneged on a deal with an African tribe for their coffee that led to the tribe in question being stripped of their homes and their land and that, ultimately, led to most of them suffering and dying in complete poverty.

Albert Fendeman, angered at what he perceives to be Simon Cotter's personal attack on his father, attempts to discredit him and, while showing Portia a mocking website he has made about Cotter, unknowingly reveals to his mother Cotter's true identity. Soon afterwards, Maddstone replies to Albert's attack on him by infecting his computer with a virus. Portia visits Maddstone in his office and convinces him to make peace with Albert.

Gordon Fendeman is summoned to a meeting of the board of directors of his company in order to negotiate a deal that will allow him to resign without disgrace. However, Maddstone unexpectedly attends the meeting, having become the chairman of the board that morning, accompanied by the princess of the tribe that Fendeman double-crossed in Africa. The princess relays the tribe's viewpoint of events, including the knowledge that when she was thirteen Fendeman raped her. Fendeman, trying to do something honourable, tries to throw himself out of the board room window, but fails. Instead, he dies of a heart attack on the board room floor.

Finally, Maddstone turns his wrath on Oliver Delft. He arranges for Delft to be subjected to exactly the same treatment that Delft inflicted on Maddstone before being offered a choice between spending the rest of his life in the Swedish asylum and committing suicide by swallowing hot coals, a reference to the character of Portia in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Delft chooses the latter and dies a gruesome death. Maddstone then shoots the men who served as Delft's lackeys on the day that he was arrested, completing his revenge. Afterward, Maddstone goes to the Fendeman house hoping to resume his relationship with Portia, but finds only Portia's father, who informs Maddstone that Portia and Albert have fled to an unknown location, mourning Gordon. Left on the kitchen table are the old love letters that Portia and Maddstone exchanged as teenagers, which he takes as he realises that he will never find Portia and Albert.

The novel ends with Cotter/Maddstone tearing up the old love letters he once sent to Portia and scatters them out to sea as he returns to what he now realises is his only real 'home', the hospital on the island that he now owns.

Character allusions/references[edit]

In the novel's afterword, Fry states he tried to make his novel appear more of a conscious homage by changing the characters' names to anagrams or references to Dumas' original work:

Monte Cristo Stars' Tennis Balls Notes
Edmond Dantès Ned Maddstone anagram
Mercedes Portia pun: Mercedes-BenzPorsche
de Villefort Oliver Delft anagram
the Abbe (Faria) the Babe (Fraser) partial anagram
Fernand Mondego Gordon Fendeman anagram
Noirtier Blackrow translated literally (calque)
Capt. Leclere Paddy Leclare homonym
Caderousse Rufus Cade translation: rousse = red = Rufus
Baron Danglars Barson-Garland anagram
Monte Cristo Simon Cotter anagram
Albert de Morcerf Albert Fendeman homonym


Reviews of the book were good. Jane Shilling declared in The Times "This is an odd, interesting, ambitious book with a complex pedigree" and Harry Mount wrote of Fry in the Daily Telegraph "He seems to be concentrating more on producing a taut thriller. This he does to good effect, adding a talent for terror and suspense-writing to his quiverful of skills".[1][2] However, Stephen Moss, writing in the Guardian opined that it was a "good read rather than great book, pacy, well constructed and rather gruesome. If one were to make a criticism, one might say that it was a trifle banausian. It works like clockwork, but one does not buy a novel to tell the time."[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jane Shilling "Unspeakable acts" The Times 30 September 2000
  2. ^ Harry Mount "Stephen Fry can write a taut thriller too" Daily Telegraph 1 October 2000
  3. ^ Stephen Moss "Joy for the jester" The Guardian 5 October 2000