Killer, Come Hither" by Louis Begley (Nan A. Talese)

Louis Begley, the prominent New York lawyer who took up fiction as he neared the age of 60 and went on to win prizes and praise for a series of biting novels about upper-crust Manhattan, calls his new novel a “departure.” His publisher calls it “a sly international thriller,” although, while a thriller of sorts, it’s not really international and just what “sly” means becomes an increasingly interesting question. All in all, I’d call it a puzzlement.

Killer, Come Hither” (a sly title?) has at least two notable virtues. Begley writes clean, crisp, graceful prose, the kind that’s always rare and ever a blessing. Also, he sets his story in a world he knows well, that of Ivy League graduates and elite law firms, of people who inhabit the Upper East Side, enjoy Manhattan’s premier restaurants, patronize the ballet and opera and spend their weekends amid the pleasures of Long Island’s Sag Harbor. Begley evokes this world effortlessly because he knows it inside out.

The back story is that Jack Dana, educated at Yale, Oxford and Harvard, joins the Marines just after the 9/11 attacks and survives brutal combat in Afghanistan. But he’s wounded, and while recovering at Walter Reed he writes a novel about the war that launches him as a best-selling author. Back in New York, he’s reunited with his only living relative, his beloved Uncle Harry, a senior partner in a major law firm.

But Harry has a problem. Although he has brought huge profits to his firm by deftly handling the affairs of an obnoxious, right-wing Texas billionaire named Abner Brown, he’s come to suspect that Brown’s companies knowingly break the law. He confronts Brown about his suspicions, as an honest lawyer should, only to have greedy partners at his law firm force him into retirement rather than lose a deep-pocketed client.

When Jack learns that his uncle has hanged himself at his weekend home in Sag Harbor, he finds this almost impossible to believe, because his uncle had good health, lots of money and plans for an active retirement. Moreover, Harry’s beloved cat lies dead at his feet, and Jack knows that his uncle, even if he killed himself, would never have harmed his pet. There’s more: Soon afterward, someone pushes Harry’s longtime secretary under a subway train. And officials of the law firm seize Harry’s papers from both his office and his home.

What’s going on here? Jack begins to suspect what we readers have already deduced — that the billionaire sent someone to kill Harry lest the lawyer blow the whistle on his crooked client. Somewhat improbably, Jack stumbles on evidence proving that a thug with an Eastern European accent killed his uncle. He hastens to Houston, confronts the loathsome billionaire (“There is no end to the evil in you, Brown”) and challenges him to send his assassin after him, Jack.

Along the way, Jack does several things that won’t surprise veteran thriller fans. He refuses to go to the police because he intends personally to find and kill his uncle’s killer. He also meets a brilliant and beautiful young lawyer in his uncle’s firm, and it’s love at first sight with conjugal bliss arriving only moments later. On learning of Jack’s private sleuthing, she sensibly urges him not to behave like “some crazy Wild West sheriff who’s got to get his man.” No matter: Jack must have his vengeance.

All this leads to the inevitable showdown between Jack and the killer, who is a Serb named Slobo. Jack awaits his enemy in his uncle’s Sag Harbor home. He’s a Marine, expert in the killing arts, but he rather oddly arms himself with, among other things, a switchblade knife and a poisoned dart laced with curare. Either man could easily dispose of the other with a firearm, but that would be no fun. They must be face to face, shouting insults:

“ ‘F--- you, dead meat!’ [Slobo] spat out. ‘You try get me! You think you make a fool of Slobo! I beat s--- out of you.’ ”

Make a fool of Slobo? What about the rest of us? Is this supposed to funny? Satirical? Sly?

If so, that certainly clashes with the ugly realism of Harry’s murder, not to mention the woman pushed under the subway train. Begley’s graceful writing has taken us nowhere of consequence, only to Slobo, poison darts and a dead cat. “Killer, Come Hither” winds up feeling like a lark; it’s hard to imagine that the author took it seriously, so why should we?

Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.

KILLER, COME HITHER

By Louis Begley

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 243 pp. $25.95