Boiled, but Not Too Hard

The latest installment in the Sam Acquillo series of mysteries
Chris Knopf David Dimicco

“Tango Down”
Chris Knopf
Permanent Press, $29.95

It begins with a local’s dream: Construction on yet another too-large Hamptons house of questionable taste has been halted. But there’s a catch, as “facedown in a slurry of blood, sawdust, and cutoffs from the finish work going on around the windows and door frames” is the moneyed homeowner, one Victor Bollings, a high-powered international business consultant. He’s had his head stove in with one of his own golf clubs. Though one wonders, a driver? With the composites these days, you can almost hear the harmless ping.

No matter, in “Tango Down,” the latest murder mystery from Chris Knopf, in steps our investigatory man, Sam Acquillo, on-site as he’s putting together fine cabinetry for the house-in-making, something he’s prone to do to earn a living and simultaneously ease his mind, troubled as it is with past crimes, past wrongs, past rights, past flare-ups of temper, and those nagging life-choice mistakes we all make. He’s also relatable, as the kids say, psychologically if not in lived experience, because he’s full of contradictions: M.I.T. grad and onetime professional boxer, former R&D man who works with his hands, trained petrochemical engineer who has “resisted mobile devices for as long as I could . . . what a pain in the ass.” He gets his news from NPR on the radio in his basement workshop.

What’s more, for anyone out there reading this who might not have encountered him before, Sam’s good company, known to sail, not motor, around Little Peconic Bay, or kick back in an Adirondack chair on the lawn of his North Sea cottage and take in the “flying white egrets, tacking sailboats, cloud shadows darkening large swaths of iridescent water.” He’ll rise now and again to hit golf balls off the breakwater for retrieval by Eddie, the dog he’s reluctant to call “his,” as the two live, as Sam puts it, “in a congenial arrangement where I fed him and gave him a place to sleep, while he hung around when I was there. . . .”

For the record, Sam is secure enough in his masculinity to swing small wood for occasional self-defense, a three-quarter-size Harmon Killebrew slugger, no 42-ounce Babe Ruth job but still truncheon enough to take down a black-jumpsuited special ops creep ninja-ing it around his property one starry evening.

Turns out Victor Bollings was a spook, deep undercover, liaison at Langley, heavy in covert operations in Colombia, the works. Giving too much away? As the revelation comes shortly before the tale’s halfway point, maybe not, and almost certainly not for those readers who like to guess what’s coming, as opposed to us escapists merely along for the ride and thus happy to be surprised. Besides, intelligence? Everybody’s doing it; we’re all in conversation with the Russians whether we know it or not.

Beyond that, forgive me, this is neither the time nor the place for plot summation. So what’s going on here? The book is readable, sharp. The action is just frequent enough for a kick in the pants. It’s hard-boiled but not overcooked. When Sam’s love interest in a relationship based on “a mutual preference for avoidance and denial” is found to have two small brain tumors, for instance, the c-word diagnosis somehow avoids melodrama, and you find yourself caring. 

The narrative is not without stumbles. It’s tricky, though: As this is the eighth book in the Sam Acquillo series, the author understandably feels a need to backtrack and fill in details. Mentioning Sam’s grown daughter in France may add nothing whatever to the story, for one example, but readers who see the novel as a visit with an old friend may disagree and find comfort in such references to past adventures.

Personally, I prefer to keep an eye out for the philosophical asides, which can be validating. “Troubles make you live longer,” Sam approximates in Latin to an Aussie in a bar on Tortola, where he’s chasing background intel.

And then there’s the mysterious pleasure of a line like this. Sam, elbows on dark wood at Mad Martha’s, the local dive, to the ponytailed vet behind the bar: “Glass, ice, something clear, and a cocktail napkin to soften the experience.”

Cheers, buddy.

Chris Knopf divides his time between Southampton and Connecticut.