With his new book, “Kill and Be Killed,” (Nan Talese/Doubleday, $25.95, 288 pp), Sagaponack’s Louis Begley has put another notch in his Glock.
The book is a sequel to last year’s “Killer Come Hither.” Both books are thrillers. The genre is a significant departure for Mr. Begley, whose serious novels explore the inner lives of the upper crust of New York society. His methods are subtle and psychologically acute. In “Kill and Be Killed” the action is less subtle. It takes place in a world of mayhem and revenge and it doesn’t take long for the bodies to start piling up. These books are “entertainments”—the distinction is made by English novelist Graham Greene—yet they are by no means trivial. Moral questions are raised and there is an undercurrent of grief.
Mr. Begley’s first novel, “Wartime Lies,” was a winner of the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award, a National Book Award Finalist and a National Book Critics Circle Finalist.
He is the author of the great comic novel “About Schmidt” and its sequels, “Schmidt Delivered” and “Schmidt Steps Back.” (The movie “About Schmidt” was loosely—very loosely—based on Mr. Begley’s novel of the same name.)
Mr. Begley has also written scholarly books about Kafka, “The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head,” and about the Dreyfus affair, “Why the Dreyfus Affair Still Matters.”
The multi-talented Mr. Begley is a retired attorney, a former partner in the distinguished firm of Debevoise and Plimpton LLP and practiced international law as head of its European division.
In “Killer Come Hither” we were introduced to Jack Dana, a Yale graduate and classics scholar who, after 9/11, decided that he owed it to his country to enlist in the Marines. After three tours in the Middle East his military career was ended by a sniper who shattered his pelvis. While he was recovering from his injuries in Walter Reed Hospital he began writing his first novel. When published it became an immediate best-seller. Though it is better to begin with “Killer, Come Hither,” it isn’t necessary. Mr. Begley includes sufficient back story.
“Kill And Be Killed” opens with Jack on the Venetian island of Torcello. He is recovering from having killed the hired thug who brutally assassinated his uncle Harry, and from having been rejected by the love of his life, Kerry Black, the brilliant attorney who was his uncle’s protégée. Jack hopes to win her back, but events take a turn for the worse when Jack learns that Kerry has died from a drug overdose, contrary to everything he thinks he knew about her. He is devastated and immediately suspects that she has been murdered.
Jack then begins getting threatening notes. Soon he himself is pursued on Torcello by someone with an unlikely weapon, a crossbow. But Jack is no pantywaist. He fought in Iraq and is a master of the martial art Krav Maga, a particularly deadly Israeli form of self-defense. He neatly avoids the shafts from the crossbow, bests his assailant easily in hand-to-hand combat and dumps his body, weighted with an anchor, into the lagoon.
Jack knows the source of the evil that had killed Uncle Harry, had killed Kerry and is threatening to kill him. It is Abner Brown, half legitimate Texas businessman, half “Napoleon of crime.” His politics are “to the right of Genghis Khan.” He is a man who uses his ill-gotten gains to advance right-wing causes, but also to fund terrorists in the Middle East and engage in human trafficking. Jack and Kerry, using information gathered by Uncle Harry, had gone a long way toward undoing all his criminal activity. But so far Brown is still free and has managed to successfully hide the worst of it.
But Kerry’s best friend, the beautiful Heidi Krohn, approaches Jack with the certain knowledge that Kerry had another file, even more damaging than anything they had found thus far. The fact that she had this file, and that she was killed on the day before she was to appear before a grand jury investigating Brown, helps to explain why Brown only now had Kerry murdered, and why Jack was being threatened himself. The likelihood is that Brown believes Jack had a copy of the file.
The danger ratchets up quickly. Jack’s housekeeper is attacked and beaten to within an inch of her life. An attempt is also made on Heidi’s life. Goons in ski masks follow Jack on his morning run in Central Park. But Jack continues to pursue the hired killer whom he believes has been hired to toy with him and instill fear before he actually kills him. He leaves jolly messages on Jack’s phone, “We play now. Kill later.”
“Kill and Be Killed” is a humdinger. The final confrontation between Jack and Abner Brown is unforgettable.
Louis Begley will appear at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Saturday, April 9, at 5 p.m.
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One fine body…