Ex-boxer and former corporate exec Sam Acquillo, now a hard-drinking carpenter living in a run-down cottage on the shores of the Little Peconic Bay in Southampton, N.Y., becomes the prime suspect in the murder of local builder Robbie Milhouser in Knopf's superb third Hamptons mystery (after Two Time and The Last Refuge). With the evidence against him almost overwhelming, Acquillo enlists a misfit group of supporters to help him uncover the real killer's identity. As he digs into the dead man's troubled past, Acquillo discovers a disturbing link between Milhouser and Acquillo's current girlfriend, Amanda Battiston. Knopf excels in describing the rustic underpinnings of Long Island's east end, especially its vast array of eccentric characters. Brisk pacing and sharp dialogue carry the reader along, but it's the endearing and deeply flawed Acquillo that's the heart and soul of this exceptional series. How can you go wrong with a philosophizing hero who drinks Absolut, reads Kant, drives a '67 Grand Prix and has a dog named Eddie Van Halen? (May)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Head Woundsby Chris Knopf
Peel back the glamour of the Hamptons and you'll find a beautiful place filled with ugly secrets. This is Sam Acquillo's world. The ex-boxer, ex-corporate infighter seems doomed to straddle the thin line between envy and love, goodness and greed, and sometimes life and death. Part-time carpenter and full-time drinker, Sam tries to lead the simple life. But as… See more details below
Peel back the glamour of the Hamptons and you'll find a beautiful place filled with ugly secrets. This is Sam Acquillo's world. The ex-boxer, ex-corporate infighter seems doomed to straddle the thin line between envy and love, goodness and greed, and sometimes life and death. Part-time carpenter and full-time drinker, Sam tries to lead the simple life. But as always, fate intervenes, this time in the form of Robbie Milhouser, a local builder and blundering bully who shares with Sam an irresistible attraction to the beautiful Amanda. When Robbie is murdered, Sam finds himself in the crosshairs of a very determined chief of police.
And in Head Wounds (309 pages, The Permanent Press, $28), Chris Knopf's third book in his literate and witty series, Sam Acquillo is fighting for his freedom.
Sam and his on-again, off-again girlfriend, neighbor Amanda Anselma, are having a quiet dinner when an old flame of Amanda's, Robbie Milhouser, barges over to their table. After a testosterone-fueled encounter outside, Robbie and his pals storm off. That night, a house Amanda has been rehabbing catches fire, and soon after, Robbie is found dead, a victim of Sam's hammer stapler. Can you say frame-up?
With a little help from his friends, Sam sets out to clear his name. And in doing so, he exposes the ugly underbelly of the handsome Hamptons.
Knopf has created a remarkable series that appeals not only for its plots and insights but also for its striking prose, such as this: "A reminder that we're really only animals after all. Inflicted with the curse of cognition. Capable of moral reasoning, but prone to mindless violence. Mindless in its heedless ferocity, but also in its lunacy."
"Head Wounds," indeed. This is a genre-bending, page-turning triumph.
After Amanda, Sam Acquillo's girlfriend, is accosted by a man from her past, other bad things happen. A fire destroys one of the houses she is restoring in Southampton, NY. Then Amanda's attacker, builder Robbie Milhouser, is murdered, and Sam becomes the prime suspect because the murder weapon, a staple hammer, belongs to him. In his third outing (after Two-Time and The Last Refuge), Sam, with the help of his friends, must act fast or be convicted of a crime he didn't commit. Knopf takes a closer look at his complex hero's past while providing a true mystery. He uses the same kind of deceptively laid-back style employed by Todd Borg, lulling unsuspecting readers only to shock them with an unexpected ending. Highly recommended.
Jo Ann Vicarel
— Calgary Herald
“His characters will have readers returning.”
— The Globe and Mail
Praise for Head Wounds:
“I quite enjoyed the setting of this novel, which Chris Knopf evokes with loving detail. But what I liked most about Head Wounds is the intelligent writing which entertained me on every page. Chris Knopf deserves a wide audience. This is one of those series published by a relatively small press that surpasses in quality a lot of what is being published by the big boys. Seek it out.”
— Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine
Praise for The Last Refuge:
"The characters are such original oddballs and their conversation so bracing that you want to kick off your shoes and spend some time on the porch with them, just taking in the view and enjoying the talk."
— The New York Times
"There's a definite whiff of Elmore Leonard here, particularly in the snappy dialogue and the colorful characters."
— Publishers Weekly
"Sam's rediscovery of himself in middle age is the real focus in this accomplished debut novel, which also boasts outstanding dialogue and a vividly rendered setting. Expect to hear more from Knopf; he is definitely a writer to watch."
— Booklist (starred review)
"Knopf has a wonderfully light and deft touch with the English language (dialogue is a strong suit) and uses it to good effect in telling this most pleasing story."
— Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine
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By CHRIS KNOPF The Permanent Press
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One The evening started innocently enough, Amanda's outfit notwithstanding.
It was dinnertime at the big place on Main street in Southampton Village. Winter and early spring had been colder than usual, until around April when it snapped out of it and turned into July, at least for a week. The place had a full wall of mahogany doors that opened to the street, so you could feel like you were eating on the sidewalk and still be within the confines of the restaurant. For the first time that year they were swung open to catch the inaugural sea breeze, rich with oxygen and hopeful expectations.
The warm weather had the row of tables next to the big open doors in such demand they could have been traded on the commodities market. This being Southampton, probably half the guys in the place knew how to do that. All I knew how to do was bring along Amanda, which usually guaranteed the most prominent table in the joint.
The other people there were locals like me who'd suffered the lousy weather with heads down and shoulders braced against the wind. Working people who knew they were forever living at the edge of possibility, with catastrophe and redemption within easy walking distance. The mood was celebratory and the noise agreeably deafening. The waitstaff was having a nice time managing the surging crowd, sustaining friendships and personal commitments while keeping up with orders for Campari and soda and crab-stuffed filet mignon.
We'd started out at the U-shaped bar. The bartender was a fresh hire, but I knew him from other gigs around the Village. I was helping him analyze the impressive range of vodkas his new employer kept behind the bar. This evolved into a blind taste test to determine the relative merits of the domestic product versus imports from Sweden, Poland and Russia.
Amanda had started out with her usual pinot noir, but was soon swept up in the competition. Being new to the game, it wasn't long before her critical judgment began to erode.
"Now I know why it's called a blind test," she said as I helped her into her seat at the table. "I'm half blind already."
"It's all in the training."
Whoever made Amanda's dress had apparently forgotten to add the back, conserving even more material around the neck and hemline. I liked the way it looked, but I was more distracted by her green eyes and extravagant head of reddish brown hair.
"You must have a winner in mind," she said.
"A clear one."
We hadn't been out much lately. I'd been working long hours on a big house on the beach for most of the winter, but the end was in sight. More importantly, Frank Entwhistle had thrown a bonus on top of my week's pay to cover a string of ten-hour days. Amanda had also been busy with a pair of knock-downs she had going over on Jacob's neck. So even if the weather hadn't decided to turn tropical, there was reason enough to act like the world was a convivial place.
The air flowing in from the sidewalk had lost a lot of the heat gained during the unseasonable day, but neither of us cared-our blood thickened to the viscosity of crude oil by months of outdoor labor. Amanda had always worked in an office before turning owner-builder, but she wasn't the type who hid out in the pickup truck with a clipboard and cell phone. More of an on-site operator, up and down ladders, schlepping material off trucks, sweeping up sawdust and tossing cut-offs into the dumpster.
She'd inherited Jacob's neck on the Little Peconic Bay two years earlier-the whole peninsula, and most of the peninsula next door called Oak Point. In between was a lagoon, at the base of which was an abandoned factory owned by the company that owned all the property. Her father had owned the company, so that's how that happened.
One thing she didn't own was my cottage or the land under it, which was at the tip of oak Point. But she did own the house next door where she'd been living since moving into the neighborhood. All the houses that came with her property had been built as rentals in the middle of the last century-single story, asbestos shingled and modestly appointed. It took almost a year for her to figure out what to do with it all. Property values in Southampton had been heading skyward for years, and showed no signs of abating. Especially waterfront. There had been plans once by other people to bulldoze the whole thing, reconfigure the lots and build 8,000 square foot miniature mansions. There was even more demand for that sort of thing now, but Amanda had grown up in one of those rental homes.
"I'm already set for a lifetime," she'd told me. "Do I want to obliterate part of my past so I can be set for two or three more?"
Two of her places had become available for rehab when the renters moved out, giving her a chance to ease into the project. I helped her find a contractor and connected her with reliable surveyors and appraisers, but that was all either of us wanted me to do. We had enough to sort out without stirring money into the mix. Especially since she had a lot of it and I had enough to maybe cover expenses for the next two or three months. After you factored in the cost of a meal at the big restaurant on Main street.
I was about to finish off my baked stuffed salmon when something over my shoulder made Amanda frown.
"What?" I asked her.
She looked back at me with a forced smiled.
I turned around and looked at the crowd thickening around the U-shaped bar.
"Who?" I asked.
"Nobody," she said, but then the frown came back. She reached for her wine glass.
I turned around again and saw Robbie Milhouser walking toward us. It was kind of a rolling walk, the consequence of the weight he carried around his waist, which he almost got away with because the rest of him was also pretty big. He would have had an ex-football player's physique if he'd ever had the ambition to play football. Heavy arms, thick neck and large hands. Wide shoulders stuffed into a blue blazer a size too small. Just north of forty, he had dark brown hair, which he wore long and shaggy, as if still in pursuit of his unsuccessful college career. Somewhere buried inside his hand was a scotch on the rocks.
"Check out Amanda Battiston," he said, approaching our table.
She sat back in her chair and looked up at him, pondering a response.
"Robbie," she said, in a voice you could use to make ice.
"Can you believe her?" he asked me.
"Most of the time," I said, truthfully.
"I drove by that job of yours over on Jacob's Neck," he said, as if that was a welcome event. "Good looking lot."
"We're doing our best," she said.
"He working for you?" he asked her, pointing at me, then giving me the privilege of a glance. "I thought you were with Frankie."
"I am. But I wouldn't call him Frankie."
Robbie grinned at the thought of irritating Frank Entwhistle, a builder whose quiet, level-headed ways could fool you into thinking that would be a safe thing to do.
"Roy really fucked the duck, didn't he?" Robbie said to Amanda. She gave a stiff little jolt I could feel transmitted through the table.
Roy Battiston was Amanda's ex-husband. Roy, Robbie and Amanda all went to Southampton High School together, about twelve years after me. Roy had tried to take control of Amanda's inheritance before she even knew she had one, which was one reason he was now an ex. And also why the next place he'd graduate from was called Hungerford Correctional Facility.
"Let's pick this up where it got left off," he said to Amanda, dropping his bulky frame into the chair next to me. He had plenty of room, but somehow got one of his elbows half stuck in my meal.
"I didn't think there was anything to leave off from," she said to him.
"Ah, come on. You know about my job over on Bay Edge Drive," he said.
"Is that where it is?" said Amanda, though she knew the place. We'd drive by it on the sand road that takes you over to my friend Paul Hodges' boat, and would occasionally stop in after the crew was gone to check on their progress. It was once a small bay front cottage, like mine. The owners had bulldozed it and for some incomprehensible reason hired Robbie to build some warped approximation of a French chateau. From a part of France heavily influenced by the architectural vernacular of Staten Island. I showed Amanda how they were using the wrong substrate for a stucco exterior. Cheaper and easier to construct, but likely to fail in less than five years. Which I suppose would outlast some of Robbie's other failures.
"Well you gotta come over and see this crew I've got," Robbie said to her, undaunted. "These guys're keepers. People want me on those houses on the ocean, but I'd rather stay in North Sea."
He leaned further into the table, his elbow now nudging the edge of my plate toward my lap. I pulled it out of his way.
"I'll see," said Amanda. "I'm pretty busy."
"These guys're all from Up Island. Seen Everything. Experienced. You can't get that from these local yahoos. You know what I mean?"
"Not really," said Amanda. "Why don't we ask my dinner date. A local yahoo if I'm not mistaken."
Robbie ignored me.
"You know we got to talk about this," said Robbie. "You got the work, I got the crews. Can I buy you a drink?"
He waved over a waiter, ignoring her attempt to refuse the offer.
"What is that, vodka?" he asked, pointing to her last test subject, only half consumed and now fully watered down by the melted ice. "Pretty hard core. Bring her another one," he said to waiter, who looked at me curiously, and I shook my head, so he left.
"Hey, Killjoy," said Robbie to me. "Who asked you?"
I used to work for Robbie's father when I was in high school. He managed a gas station for a while out on County Road. I didn't think much of the old man, but I barely remembered his son. Lately I'd seen Robbie around the Village driving a big white pickup with a chrome, diamond-plate tool chest mounted in the bed. He'd sometimes insert himself into the easy banter that went on among the tradesmen at the deli or the counter at the lumber yard when we all lined up to order material or clear our tabs. Not my kind of thing, so I just kept my distance.
"I'm all set, Robbie," said Amanda.
"Thanks to Mr. Happy spoiling the fun," he said, looking at me with a smirk. "What're you, the father figure?"
Now that he was facing me I could smell the sugary stink of alcohol on his breath. He was at least half in the bag which, given his personality, could only make a bad situation worse. Amanda had grown up without her father. Robbie likely remembered that.
"Actually, Sam's my bodyguard," said Amanda.
"Whoa, scary," he said, turning his head back to Amanda and sliding his elbow in such a way that I couldn't stop it from dumping the remains of my baked stuffed salmon into my lap. Amanda watched me flick pieces of pink fish off my trousers while Robbie continued to press her about a potential partnership.
"You don't have to say anything now," his voice lowered in a theatrical imitation of discretion, "just keep thinking about it. We could plan out half a dozen of those shacks at a time. I'll give you, like, a volume discount. You want to meet Patrick? He's one of my guys. He's right over there."
Before she could stop him he yelled, "Yo, Patrick!" over the burble of restaurant conversation.
Patrick was a tall guy, taller than Robbie, and leaner and harder. He was wearing an expensive dress shirt without a tie, and blue jeans. His hands were thick and flecked with scratches and sores. His reddish blond hair was formed into tight natural waves, the kind you hardly need to comb.
"Hey, Patrick, this is Amanda Battiston. We're old buddies. She's the one doing those knockdowns on Jacob's neck. I told you about her, didn't I? Owns the whole fuckin' peninsula."
Patrick stood between Robbie and Amanda and offered her his hand. She took it tentatively, looking over at me. Patrick followed her eyes.
"Oh, yeah, and this is Sam Aquinas," said Robbie. "Amanda's bodyguard, or so I'm told."
"Acquillo. Aquinas was the saint. No relation."
Patrick was still holding Amanda's hand. She tried to pull it back.
"Bodyguard? There's a gig I could do. Body like that, do it for free."
Amanda looked at me again. I half stood, reached across the table in front of Robbie and got a grip on Patrick's forearm. It had a lot of tough meat on it, not unusual for a carpenter.
"Her name is Amanda Anselma," I told him. "Battiston's the ex-husband. You let go, then I let go."
Patrick looked unsure of what to do. I dug my thumb between the ribbons of muscle and ligament in his arm. A wince passed over his face and he nodded. He released his grip and I followed suit. Robbie leaned back to look at me, as if trying to get my face in focus.
"That was interesting," he said as I sat back in my chair.
"What do you say, boys," I said. "Time to move along."
"You know this guy?" Patrick asked Robbie, rubbing his arm.
Robbie was still a massive and unyielding presence at our table. I had my plate back in front of me and used it to push his elbow out of the way. Amanda was looking out at the street through the open doors, as if hoping something would happen that would rescue us from the situation.
"We're waiting," she said, calmly.
Robbie muttered some sort of profanity.
"You know me, Amanda," he said to the back of her head. "For a long time. For a very long time. I'm serious about this. It's totally in both our mutual benefits."
She turned her head far enough to lock eyes with me. I shrugged.
"Your friends are waiting for you," I told him, nodding my head toward the bar. "Come on, give it up."
Robbie whipped back in my direction.
"Who the fuck are you? Who the fuck is he?" he asked Amanda.
One of the busboys in the place was a guy I'd known for a long time. He had a dark complexion and an accent, so he probably never felt totally at home in Southampton, but everyone liked him, including me. He had some unpronounceable name, so he had everybody call him Tommy. He must have heard Robbie start to raise his voice, because a second later he was there at the table, wiping his hands with a cloth napkin and asking us if everything was okay.
Nobody said anything for a second, then Patrick said, "We're fine, sahib."
"Okay," said Amanda, tearing her gaze from the street-lit world outside the open doors. "That's it. Get lost."
Robbie still had this dopey look on his face, half sneer and half smile, and didn't look all that ready to leave. His boy Patrick was all business, staring at me.
"I think we're at that point," I said to them.
Robbie looked exasperated.
"Come on, Amanda," he said. "I'm just trying to get something going."
"Right," she said. "Get going."
I'd been in a lot of these situations when I was younger. In those days it usually didn't mean that much, until it did, and then it could mean life or death. I was fairly sure Robbie lacked the necessary wherewithal to take things beyond a lot of ridiculous talk, but I wasn't so sure about Patrick. He hadn't taken his eyes off me since I'd clamped down on his arm. I felt my chest tighten, though it wasn't my heart I was worried about.
It was my head. An ex-boxer's head that a doctor had told me had been whacked on one too many times. I made of point of not asking him what that actually meant, assuming it was nothing but bad. But I knew my lifetime concussion allotment was all used up.
Robbie finally climbed out of his chair, using Patrick to steady himself.
"Okay," he said, "your fuckin' loss."
I kept my eyes on both of them until they were safely tucked back into the crowd hanging around the bar. In the process I noticed Tommy was still hovering nearby. We nodded at each other, then he went back to work.
"To quote Robbie Milhouser," said Amanda, "that was interesting."
When she took a sip of her vodka her hand was shaking.
"Sorry. I thought at first you were old pals."
"Not then, not now, not for all eternity," she said in a way that seemed more heartfelt than even the current situation warranted. My face must have betrayed that thought, because she quickly added, "And I don't want to talk about it."
It was the kind of thing I would say myself, so I was perfectly amenable to that. It just wasn't something I'd heard much out of Amanda.
With no chance of reconstructing the original mood, we sat there long enough to finish our drinks, then packed it in.
Excerpted from HEAD WOUNDS by CHRIS KNOPF Copyright © 2008 by Chris Knopf. Excerpted by permission.
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The self-help website ¿How Stuff Works¿ exists to explain the dynamics of physical systems to the non-engineers among us. It¿s mirror-image Evil Twin website, ¿How Stuff Breaks Down¿, could be said to be at the epicenter of every one of Chris Knopf¿s Hampton Murder mysteries, including the sublime new ¿HEAD WOUNDS¿. This time out Sam¿s own head is on the block, and the colorful rabbit warren of clues and evidence interspersed with juicy 'and juiced' philosophizing makes for a great read. Before the deluge, Sam Acquillo was a highly-paid systems analyst for a petrochemical company, the guy you call in an emergency to figure out what¿s preventing a billion-dollar system from doing what it¿s supposed to do. High stakes, high stress, high pay, all of it. Suffice it to say, he flames out dramatically, in high style. Imagine yourself with marriage and job on the rocks, a leftover company credit card and car, limitless time and vodka on your hands. Ah, the possibilities. Understand, this is just the background reel, separate from the actual plot of ¿HEAD WOUNDS¿, though it informs the main character¿s motivations in important ways. This is fun stuff, folks. Forget everything you know and believe in, is the order of the day. The center cannot hold, because the wheel¿s out of round. So, drink more vodka, read Kant, and run it all by the dog, named Eddie Van Halen. There¿s not much holding Sam Acquillo together these days: ¿I can¿t do it again¿, I said finally to Eddie. ¿For any reason.¿ I didn¿t like to think of myself as a middle-aged guy who sat drinking alone in the dark, talking to his dog about his fears and uncertainties. But I¿d been doing that to Eddie since saving him from the pound, so he must have assumed listening to a bunch of worthless crap was part of his daily work product. ¿I can¿t do it¿, I repeated. All he did was look at me over the crumbled remains of his biscuit. I let it stand at that and finished my drink then one or two more to be on the safe side, before letting the encyclopedia of irresolvable quanderies that continually cycled through my consciousness shift into a dream state, thereby maintaining the continuity of torment from wakefulness to sleep. Are you beginning to dig this guy? The real fun starts when he applies his tortured but estimable problem-solving skills to his own survival, which involves a frame-up for a murder inside his community in the Hamptons. Along for the ride are a gaggle of locals, all wonderfully real flesh and blood. Knopf¿s specialty is intelligent, beautiful and conflicted women, which makes for some great dialogue. My one limited beef is that some of the exchanges go on one or two witticisms too long, sort of like selling past the close. But no matter this is excellent, to-the-bone writing. In many ways, Sam Acquillo¿s performing the same elite specialized function as when he was in the corporate wars: he¿s isolating system failures ¿ human now instead of mechanical - with limited time and resources, before the world blows up. Only now he¿s doing it without a salary, perks or yearly bonus. Go buy the book and see how he pulls it off.
Pull up an easy chair, light the lamp, and prepare to enter the world of Sam Acquillo. If you're a first time reader of this series, you'll soon discover it's a very strange world, which befits Sam as he's a unique guy. A former successful white collar worker and boxer, Sam is now a carpenter keeping vodka in his glass by working on pricey houses which are dotting the shoreline of Jacob's Neck and Oak Point. He lives in a cottage on the waterfront, often hangs out in Southhampton Village, and his best pal is his dog, Eddie Van Halen. His marraige ended in an acrimonious divorce, he and his daughter are all but estranged., and he's presently involved in an off again - on again romance with the beauteous Amanda who inherited a great deal of the land on which said expensive homes are being built. Sound as if Sam's in a downward spiral? Apparently so but the twists and turns make fascinating reading, especially when accompanied by Chris Knopf's painterly descriptions, and fully imagined characters. Sam is a puzzling protagonist, an affecting fellow for whom we keep rooting. First off, we wonder how he ever came to this - chief suspect in a murder case. Sam's super intelligent, has an MIT degree, uses four or five syllable words properly, freely, and reads Kant. But, here he is with Robbie Milhouser quite dead after several head blows from Sam's heavy construction stapler. Plus, a few folks witnessed a recent brawl between the two men. The rather complex plot involves finding out who the real killer is, which is done primarily by following Sam's thought processes. And, that is sometimes perplexing, often amusing, and always compelling. In the quest to vindicate Sam there is, of course, a little help from his friends. For this reader, chief among those pals is the libidinous Southhampton High School psychologist, Rosaline Arnold. 'On first meeting few realized how attractive she was, having trouble seeing past her nose. A big nose. Big enough to challenge the powers of exaggeration.' How can you not like Rosaline? Fact is, how could you not like Head Wounds? It has it all - pleasureful prose, sustained suspense, and the hope that there's more to come from the ever surprising Sam. - Gail Cooke