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Torture and Fine Dining

Tue, 11/05/2019 - 13:04
Louis Begley

“Killer's Choice”
Louis Begley
Nan A. Talese, $25.95

 “Killer’s Choice” is the third novel in the Jack Dana series by Louis Begley. Jack, the protagonist, is a “former Marine Corps Infantry officer and a graduate of its toughest combat schools.” Jack commanded a recon platoon in Af­ghanistan until he was shot in the pelvis by a sniper. While recuperating in Walter Reed Hospital, he writes a novel and becomes a successful and wealthy novelist. He now splits his time between a luxurious apartment on Fifth Avenue and a home in Sag Harbor.

The novel opens with a quick summary of events from the previous books in the series.  

There is no end of me, Abner Brown had mocked minutes before he injected himself with the deadly overdose of insulin. I’ve seen to that! There never will be.

I took those words then to be more of the braggadocio the diabolical Texas billionaire had been spouting ever since I dumped on his desk the files I said I would deliver the next day to the U.S. attorney. Files certain to put Abner behind bars for the rest of his life, or on death row. . . .

 Shortly after Jack’s first book comes out, his uncle Harry is murdered by a hit man named Slobo. The hit was commissioned by Abner Brown, as was the murder the next day of Harry’s secretary, who is pushed under a subway train.

 “I avenged those murders, as well as the murder, months later, of Kerry Black, my uncle’s favorite associate. . . . We had fallen in love passionately, but she dumped me after I killed Slobo instead of only disabling that thug and turning him over to the police.”

Jack is now in love with Heidi Krohn, the litigator daughter of a billionaire, Jon Krohn. Heidi gives Jack a black French bulldog named Satan, a sure sign, he believes, that they are “on the right track.”

Just before midnight Jack receives a phone call and picks up, believing it to be Heidi calling from Hong Kong, where she is currently working.

“I heard screams. Screams more awful than any I had ever heard. Worse than the screaming of marines in Iraq or Afghanistan with limbs torn off by an IED or stomach wounds so bad the intestines were exposed, worse than the howling of a Taliban prisoner . . . some CIA contractors were working over. . . . Transfixed with horror, I didn’t hang up. After a time . . . no more than five minutes, a man’s deep voice addressed me.”

The man tells Jack that the “boss” had said to let him listen and enjoy. Eventually the line goes dead. Only then does Jack notice that the call came from Simon Lathrop, his uncle Harry’s law partner. Jack calls the police and heads over to the Lathrops’ home.

What Jack sees there is worse than anything he has seen in war. The old couple have been tortured to death, Simon crucified, his genitals and her breasts sliced off, and their skin flayed. And more, though I will spare you further gory details.

When Jack returns to his Fifth Avenue apartment, he is met (even though it is 5 in the morning) by Feng, “my combination houseman, gourmet cook, and, ever since he shot, in the nick of time, the last of the killers Abner had sent to finish me off, my savior and self-appointed bodyguard. . . .” Feng is quite multitalented. Not only is he a “former member of the Hong Kong Police Force Special Duty Unit — a SWAT team,” but he is also the perfect majordomo and chef.

Although Jack counts Feng as one of his two best friends, Feng is unfailingly respectful, subservient, and even, one might say, slavish, always calling Jack “sir,” and Heidi “Miss Heidi.”

Eventually we find out that the boss behind the murders, the “Monster,” as Jack has come to call him, is the evil twin of Jack’s nemesis, Abner, but born with horrible disfigurements. “The head was hideously misshaped. One ear was missing. One eye was way off to the side, covered by a flesh fold that was unlike an eyelid. The nose was off-center.” Again I will spare you further grisly details.

Ultimately Heidi and her nephew are kidnapped by Monster’s henchmen, and despite the involvement of the C.I.A., the F.B.I., and various police departments, the best Jack can think to do is swap himself for the two innocents. Which he valiantly does, but not before enjoying one of Feng’s excellent dinners served with a fine wine and followed by a nice nap. What ensues is a gruesome account of torture and disfigurement that is difficult to stomach.

Though set in the present day, “Killer’s Choice” has an odd, almost Edwardian tone. Mr. Begley uses words like “goons,” “murderous thugs,” “diabolical,” and has men attacking Jack in New York City in 2018 with nail-studded cudgels. Jack talks of bearding Abner in his lair. There are clear class distinctions, and nearly everyone in the books calls Jack and those he associates with “sir.” Women are suspected of having “hysterics” were they to be let in on things. And do people actually still ring for servants?

Despite its quirky formality and old-fashionedness, the book has some delicious descriptions of wonderful meals (mostly Chinese) that Feng prepares, and local fans (especially those who are both city and country) will enjoy visiting familiar New York City and East End locations.


Michael Z. Jody, a longtime book reviewer for The Star, is a psychoanalyst and couples counselor with a practice in Amagansett.

Louis Begley lives in Manhattan and Sagaponack.


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