By Dawn Watson
Louis Begley is full of surprises.
The Sagaponack-based author is known for his novels about social order and morality. But lately, the lawyer-turned-writer has decided to switch up the narrative and delve into the world of trained killers and ruthless murderers.
In his most recent, “Kill and Be Killed,” Mr. Begley continues to explore the dark underbelly of crime, which he first uncovered in last year’s thriller “Killer, Come Hither.” He’ll talk about his newest novel at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Saturday, April 9, at 5 p.m.
The action jumps right back into the life of protagonist and Marine-turned-writer Jack Dana, whom readers were first introduced to in “Killer, Come Hither.” This time, after avenging the death of his beloved uncle, Dana must search for the truth about his former love, who also happens to turn up dead under suspicious circumstances.
The subject matter might be drastically different from what Mr. Begley usually writes about—the interior lives of octogenarians, he jokes—but the book isn’t actually that big of a leap, says the Academy of Arts and Letters member and writer of the “About Schmidt” series. It’s still grounded in familiar terrain.
“It’s not all that much of a change. Whatever I’m doing, I write about society as I know it,” the PEN/Hemingway Award-winner explains. “At the end of the day, I’m still trying to write in a literary way, with good sentences and good paragraphs. In this case, it happens to be a revenge thriller about bloodshed and mayhem.”
Mr. Begley, now in his 80s, admits that he’s tended to write about that which he knows. “My protagonists have gotten on in age as I’ve gotten older,” he continues. But with the “Killer” books, he’s enjoyed writing about “the younger set,” and about hero Jack Dana in particular. “I happen to like Jack. He’s a bit of an escape and he’s also a good vehicle, I hope, to draw younger readers in.”
The impetus for the character’s violent storyline actually came from a real-life experience, says the writer. He had a vision of an intruder breaking in to his East End home, which left him feeling “utterly helpless.” Fortunately, that small glimpse of fear was enough to get to him writing about Jack Dana and his uncle Harry, whose murder sets the action in motion for both of Mr. Begley’s most recent novels.
Reality also provided the setting for the books. As with many of the prolific writer’s novels, “Kill and Be Killed” and “Killer, Come Hither” feature several South Fork locations, and Sag Harbor in particular. Even more specifically, Mr. Begley reveals, an actual residence on Madison Avenue in the village is, in his mind, the place in which it all started.
“A few years ago, I went to a garden party at this house and was absolutely struck by the beauty of the studio,” he recalls. “I’ve never been back since but I knew that Harry’s house had to be that house.”
Mr. Begley is keeping mum about the exact location of the actual site but he does let slip that there’s another place in Sag Harbor that’s special to him and that’s Canio’s. The shop is an inspiration of sorts, says the author. It’s his favorite bookstore in America.
“It’s a paradise for book lovers … Crowded from floor to ceiling with works of contemporary literature and classics, art books, and second hand books, and collectibles (including first editions), Canio’s has something to suit every cultivated taste,” he writes in an essay published in the June 24, 2014 edition of the German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “There is a simple test of a bookstore’s excellence: does being inside it make you smile? I have a big grin on my face from the moment I cross Canio’s threshold.”
Mr. Begley’s reading there will hopefully inspire similar reactions, he says, at least for a moment or two.
“It’s very nice when people stop you on the street, write letters to you or come out to hear you talk,” he says. “One must have enormous conviction to say something and make it worthwhile. So many books that are awfully good can still be forgotten. Being an author is equal parts self-confidence and humility. I hope they like the book.”
Author Louis Begley will stop by Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor for a reading of “Kill and Be Killed” on Saturday, April 9, at 5 p.m. For additional information, visit caniosbooks.com.