The Trouble With Harry

By Maggie Scarf
Louis Begley

“Killer, Come Hither”
Louis Begley
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $25.95

After a successful career at the white-shoe law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton in Manhattan, Louis Begley took up fiction writing at the age of 57. He then went on to produce 10 highly praised works, including “Wartime Lies” (1991), which won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, and “About Schmidt” (1996), which became a film of the same name starring Jack Nicholson.

“Killer, Come Hither” is Mr. Begley’s first venture into the genre of legal thriller. It is the story of Jack Dana, 26, a young man who has trod a golden pathway through life. Dana has gone to the “right” boarding school, following which he has become a stellar student of ancient history at Yale. His intellectual gifts have won him a scholarship to Balliol College at Oxford, and on his return, he has gone to Harvard to pursue his graduate studies. There, he is elected to the Society of Fellows, which involves a stipend that will cover his living costs.

True, there are clouds that have darkened Jack’s college years: his mother’s death from cancer and his father’s death following a stroke. But there is a beloved presence who is always at his side, and who becomes his surrogate father. This is Uncle Harry, Jack Dana’s only living relative.

The tragedy of 9/11 calls a halt to the peaceful academic life that beckons. Dana is the son and grandson of military men, and he joins the services. No longer the scholar, he becomes Capt. Jack Dana, Marine Infantry officer and Force Recon platoon leader — until his time in Iraq is cut short by a sniper’s bullet. It is while he is recovering in Walter Reed Hospital that the ever-solicitous Uncle Harry supports Jack in his writing about his wartime experiences and what they had done to himself and to his men.

Harry, a hugely successful lawyer with infinite connections, is the first reader of Jack’s finished work, and he puts Jack in touch with an agent and a publisher. The novel’s an immediate success; two subsequent novels and film options follow. Jack has found his groove. But suddenly, in the wake of an extended vacation in the Brazilian Outback, he returns to civilization and the news that Uncle Harry is dead.

Not only is Harry dead, he has killed himself. “It is so awful, Jack,” he is told by Kerry, his uncle’s closest associate. “He hanged himself, in Sag Harbor, in that beautiful studio in back of his house.”

Was Harry’s death really a suicide — or was it murder? While Jack surmises the latter possibility, the reader never doubts it, for Harry’s secretary was killed by a subway train on the very day after her boss was found. We also know that Harry has brought huge profits to his law firm by deftly managing the affairs of Abner Brown, a reclusive and eccentric Texas billionaire whose extremist views Harry has described as “to the right of Attila the Hun.” Had Harry stumbled on some of Abner Brown’s illegal transactions, and was the “suicide” a “hit” ordered by Brown?

While the motive and the guilty party are never in doubt, the real fun of this book is the painstaking gathering of evidence, the tracking down of the deadly mobster (a Serb named Slobodan), and Jack’s careful preparation for his vengeance upon Harry’s killer. Working alongside him are his uncle’s protégée Kerry (with whom Jack is soon sharing a blissful love affair) and a longtime pal, Scott Prentice, who works for the C.I.A. It is Prentice who supplies some of the special gear requested by Jack: a gun that blows up on impact and causes a bloody open wound, and a poisoned dart whose tip is laced with curare.

Although the ending is foretold early in the novel, the unexpected plot twists and the inevitable showdown are what drive the narrative forward. The meeting between “Slobo” and Jack Dana is as ugly as might be expected, but the final surprise is the way in which Jack’s triumphal revenge is compromised.

Maggie Scarf is a fellow at Yale’s Jonathan Edwards College and the author, most recently, of “The Remarriage Blueprint.” She lives in Sag Harbor.

Louis Begley lives in New York and Sagaponack.