Instinct and Insinuation

By James I. Lader
Chris Knopf David DiMicco

“Cop Job”

Chris Knopf

Permanent Press, $29

One useful framework for classifying the protagonists of mystery novels, as Agatha Christie’s devoted readers well know, is that there are Poirots and there are Marples. Hercule Poirot, of course, is the professional detective with highly honed skills, engaged by private clients, and occasionally even by Scotland Yard itself. Jane Marple, on the other hand, is not a professional, operates more on instinct than on skill, and insinuates herself into a situation, once a crime has been committed, usually as a favor to a friend, and generally to the consternation of the local constabulary.

Sam Acquillo, the protagonist of Chris Knopf’s “Cop Job” (the sixth installment of the author’s Sam Acquillo Hamptons Mystery series), falls squarely in the Marple category, though he is hard-boiled and obstreperous where Christie’s Miss Marple is polite and genteel. Then again, Sam is not a little old lady living in a quaint English village. 

An M.I.T. graduate with a degree in engineering, Sam is a former prizefighter and corporate troubleshooter who has returned home to Southampton, where he supports himself as a skilled cabinetmaker. (Not an ordinary career path, to say the least.) As he himself summarizes his backstory, “It wasn’t until I exchanged my marriage, suburban house, and corporate career for full-time drunkenness that I was reacquainted with rank-and-file law enforcement.”

Sam inhabits a largely blue-collar Southampton, not at all the village or town portrayed in glossy lifestyle magazines. (Certain readers may even experience a kind of schadenfreude from a novel set nearly entirely in the seamy underbelly of so swanky a community.) In previous books of the series, which I have not read, he has apparently helped solve an assortment of crimes, in the process ruffling the feathers of the local law-enforcement establishment — police and prosecutors alike.

So he is taken aback somewhat when he and his pal Jackie Swaitkowski, a smart, savvy, and witty defense attorney, are invited to discreetly look into the apparent homicide of a local character, Alfie Aldergreen. That invitation, in fact, comes from Ross Semple, the Southampton Town police chief, and from Edith Madison, Suffolk County district attorney. The body of Alfie, a severely disabled Army veteran of the Iraq War who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, is hoisted from Hawk Pond on the novel’s first page, imprisoned in his electric wheelchair by duct tape.

Once they begin looking into the hapless Alfie’s demise, Sam and Jackie inadvertently open several Pandora’s boxes. Among other things, they discover that Alfie was one of three confidential police informants (CIs in law-enforcement parlance) to have been murdered recently, a revelation that leads them to wonder about corruption in the local force (as obviously the CIs’ covers had all been blown). Moreover, unsavory shenanigans in local political circles also receive scrutiny.

And even though it takes a long time to connect all the dots, Sam understands instinctively, when his 20-something daughter is savagely attacked in her Manhattan apartment, that it is not merely a random urban crime.

“Cop Job” is essentially all plot-driv­en; there is little character development (except perhaps for Sam) and even less specific local color. Nevertheless, Mr. Knopf knows how to keep a story going. The dramatic climax, aboard a sailboat in Little Peconic Bay, is memorable. By the time the story resolves itself, a great many seemingly loose threads have been wound into a neat and satisfying conclusion.

Sam Acquillo has the makings of a classic mystery-novel franchise. He is idiosyncratic — he drives an ancient Pontiac Grand Prix and his faithful dog is named Eddie, after rock star Van Halen — and he speaks in the blunt, colorful style of the great fictional detectives of yesteryear (“I saw her standing near the crane, wearing a summer suit with a hem an inch or two above the entirely professional”). Here’s hoping that Mr. Knopf will continue to expand that franchise in years to come.

A weekend resident of East Hampton, James I. Lader periodically contributes book reviews to The Star.

Chris Knopf lives in Southampton and Connecticut.