When literary writers turn their hand to genre fiction, they have a tendency to hide behind a pseudonym. It was Robert Markham not Kingsley Amis who wrote a 007 adventure, Dan Kavanagh not Julian Barnes who wrote the Duffy crime novels. These pen names seem less an indicator for the reader as a safeguard for the writer, a means of keeping their interesting but less “worthy” side-projects at a distance from their regular, unsulliable “literary” titles.
In the late stages of a distinguished career, the American novelist Louis Begley has branched off and, surprisingly, written a thriller under his own name. Killer, Come Hither sees Begley continuing to observe and pick at the pretensions of upper-crust New York life, but instead of zeroing in on character flaws and relationships he focuses for the first time on the broader mechanics of plot, intrigue and tension. In doing so, he achieves mixed results.
Begley’s protagonist is Jack Dana, a history student at Yale who, after 9/11, abandons academia to serve his country in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wounded in combat, he rethinks his career again and decides to write a book about his war experiences. His debut novel is a hit and one bestseller follows another. Everything seems rosy – until the day his holiday on a remote ranch in Brazil is interrupted with the news that his beloved Uncle Harry has hanged himself in his Long Island weekend house.
Upon his return to New York, doubts quickly intrude upon Jack’s grief. Harry was too healthy and happy. He would never have killed his cat before killing himself. Nor would he have written such a perplexing, out-of-character suicide note. The law firm Harry worked for has misplaced all his private papers and spread the word that he was showing signs of dementia.
Feeling fobbed off and nurturing too many suspicions, Jack starts to investigate. He teams up with Harry’s favourite associate Kerry and learns that his uncle was about to expose the shady dealings of his firm’s principal client, Texan billionaire Abner Brown. But the deeper Jack probes, the more feathers he ruffles. In time, hunter becomes hunted.
Killer, Come Hither takes a while to flaunt its true colours and announce itself as a thriller. We have to wait 50 pages for a corpse and even longer for Jack to smell a rat. The reader is frequently one step ahead, particularly when we are told that Harry's secretary and joint custodian of his professional secrets died in an "awful accident" one day after her boss's "suicide". "Was it possible that Barbara Diamond had been pushed under the subway train because someone thought she knew too much?" as Jack muses 70 pages later – long after the reader has arrived at that conclusion.
Jack is slow on the uptake but also too good to be true: Ivy League wunderkind, fearless marine, rich and successful author and a hit with the ladies to boot. Well-connected Harry gives him most of his lucky breaks – even helping him track down his killer by recording his last conversation on his phone and leaving it in a place for his nephew to find. And for the novel’s showdown-finale, best pal Scott, a CIA operative, responds to Jack’s call to arms and kits him out with state-of-the-art gizmos.
All of this slick, easy serendipity with little graft or struggle on the hero’s part divests the novel of any real surprises. On the plus side, once that corpse materialises Begley cranks it up a gear, zipping along in tight, no-nonsense prose and unloading several gripping scenes, such as Jack’s heated one-to-one confrontation with bully boy Brown in his luxury fortress.
But though a competent thriller, Killer, Come Thither is at the same time a marked comedown for an author who excelled with both his portrait of a lawyer pushed from his pedestal in About Schmidt (1996) and his heart-stopping tale about a boy surviving the Holocaust, or "conflagration", Wartime Lies (1991). Begley has proven he can write a crime novel, and he deserves credit for doing so without recourse to a pseudonym. But now he should return to what he does best. "For Anka, this departure" reads the novel's dedication. Let's hope this departure is only a one-off deviation rather than a permanent change of direction.
This book is available on Amazon.
Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.