Crime and punishment among the mad

Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review.

For Tim Green, the legal system is a game of chance. At the whim of a judge or jury, pain, suffering and bereavement become less significant than legal loopholes and rules of evidence twisted by shysters, while violent predators roam free to prey on the innocent again and again. "The Fifth Angel" presents a case for the retribution that our so-called justice system fails to visit upon sordid destroyers of lives.

Jack Ruskin's teenage daughter has lost her mind after being kidnapped, tortured and raped by a pedophile who, thanks to crucial facts excluded as inadmissible evidence, received a minimal sentence for his bestial acts. Soon he will be out on parole like so many other psychotic perverts. But Jack, a former prosecutor and now a partner in a prestigious Pittsburgh law firm, knows how to kill leaving no evidence. That's what he does to a string of sexual predators, visiting vengeance on monsters who take life not only from their victims but also from those who loved them. He sees himself as an avenging angel: that Fifth Angel of the Apocalypse who pours the vial of God's wrath upon sexual predators and makes them gnaw their tongues in pain.

Methodically, he inflicts torment and death on those who inflict it on others, all this on a diet of Maalox and fresh air. And Green's yarn is about the hunt for this dejected yet discriminating killer, about the widespread sympathy his achievements evoke and about the way in which a twist of fate turns one of the agents who pursues Ruskin into a reluctant confederate.

Clearly, law and morality are not one. But when law does not do what most of us expect, vigilantism offers a tempting alternative that is dangerous to society, to the innocent and to the vigilante himself. In "The Fifth Angel," issues of right and wrong are clearer than they tend to be in real life; collateral damage is minimal and it is easy to root for the hero. Things are not usually so simple. But Green's eloquent thriller advances a gripping argument for wild justice.

But wait, there's more to come, and it is even gorier. James Patterson's "Four Blind Mice" is about the pain, the panic and, in due course, the carnage inflicted in a series of bizarre attacks that spill a lot of blood and hand out dire punishment for no apparent reason. To avenge a friend framed in one of these crazy setups, two Washington, D.C., police detectives go hunting for the hellhounds who mount the string of inexplicable crimes. It turns out that the fantastical deceivers have military experience; the torments they inflict and the blood they shed are payoffs for atrocities that have been covered up since Vietnam War days.

The detectives' search is blocked by military authorities loath to uncover the gorier aspects of a past that is far from past, then fuddled and flurried by mysterious interventions that both help and hinder. In the end, the killers who slaughtered for sport more than money are wiped out, the master wirepuller is revealed and revenge turns out to have inspired him as it has the detectives. Reprisal and retribution are valid motivations -- even when they exact more than just an eye for an eye. But the improbable stagings, the excessive brutality and collateral damage, the implausible symbolism and unlikely details (do army assassins really carry cans of paint?) strain the seams of a chilling plot and weaken characterizations.

The same criticism applies to Jan Burke's wildly exciting and wildly unlikely, finally unappetizing and unconvincing "Nine." A gang of incredibly wealthy ruffians chases after less wealthy knaves to eliminate the FBI's 10 most wanted and a few extras on the side. What the ruffians are doing is illegal, but they're ridding the country of some of its worst criminals without costing taxpayers a dime. If there weren't a lot of self-indulgent sadism about the enterprise, they might deserve the high regard in which fellow Americans come to hold them. Police, who look upon them with less favor, are always a step behind the arrogant malefactors until, in fictional narratives at least, they get them. The problem is that we are never shown just how the opulent scourges score their goals. Worse yet, the vivid action plays on our worst feelings: not just some comprehensible quest for retribution but the bully's ignoble satisfaction in asserting power and inflicting pain.

Patterson's and Burke's offerings are inventive and fast-paced but corrosive too. Where standard suspense stories focus on detection, they feature the savage spasms of violence, the indiscriminate and often gratuitous fun that some find in hurting and demeaning. They don't invite readers to reason with (or ahead of) the author but to join in a pornography of voyeurism. Not very good for one, even if you think you don't inhale.

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