Before you sail into Chris Knopf’s “Black Swan,” it helps to know that this is his fifth book imagining the misadventures of the multitalented Sam Acquillo. Acquillo, his nautical dog, Eddie, and rock-steady girlfriend, Amanda, make up a franchise of three. Sam, a man of many parts that seem to accumulate with each book, has a lot to live up to: tough guy, ex-boxer, onetime corporate IT chief (fired), digital techie, mechanical engineer, carpenter, sailor extraordinaire, ex-murder suspect, unmarried monogamist, trouble-finder, and troublemaker. And Southampton resident.
Permanent Press, $28
Only this time Acquillo and company find themselves off Long Island and on their way to another one: Fishers Island.
But not by choice. Acquillo is skippering a new 46-foot, million-dollar sailboat bound for Southampton. A violent October storm forces them to take refuge in the lee of Fishers Island.
Left in the hands of the island’s sparse year-round population, Acquillo has veered from one storm into the center of another, more dangerous one. Off-season, Fishers Island is not only an abandoned place haunted by eccentrics, it becomes a sinister cauldron of intrigue and murder, replete with goon squads and paramilitary assassins. Under such circumstances, a “retired” mechanical engineer like Acquillo might apply his R&D skills to good effect, or at least violent ones. These conflicting forces are assembled under the roof of a weather-beaten resort hotel named the Black Swan.
Mr. Knopf’s oversized characters tend to have names like Axel, Track, Sanderfreud, Two Trees, and ’t Hooft. (Some are words that come from disciplines in science and engineering.) Characters are either lost in the ether of a digital neverland or down-to-earth killers, trying to highjack algorithms that may be theoretical but look good on paper. Especially currency.
The character of Sam Acquillo draws from a staggering range of talents, skills, and fact data. He quotes from Juvenal, explains Occam’s razor, and removes a hard drive with his Swiss army knife. He manages to navigate his way around Fishers Island by dead reckoning on foot at night. This rich panoply to sleuth by is always entertaining. A knowledge base like this would be handy around a software developer, a boatyard, a machine shop, a carpenter’s den, or in the Bermuda Race.
Acquillo does not mince words, provoking plenty of snappy, sardonic banter. Here he is in a fistfight, attempting to protect a boy hiding from kidnappers:
“Where’s the boy?”
“Fuck you,” I said.
“Very well,” said Hammon. “The negotiating positions are established.”
Although Mr. Knopf’s prose style can get bumpy, a tone of amusement runs high. That is, ironic complaints like “. . . you don’t pay proper attention to me, and you kill people.” Or, “I think God brought you to me. Even though I don’t believe in God.”
Acquillo is a likable, funny, yet unknowable guy. His inner life and game plans remain hidden, even from himself. It would have to be so. His precedents, like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, have always been not quite credible, larger-than-life creatures of excess and mystery. He is not socialized in any so-called healthy sense. He is an outsider on the inside. The same can be said of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, and Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder, even Sherlock Holmes, et al. All seem inhabited by a nameless quest for trouble, then find a way out of it. They blunder. They are flawed. They will always be outsiders.
Amanda brings legitimacy to the shady side of Acquillo. Her language and bearing make plain that she’s more than Sam’s main squeeze. Amanda is a fully assembled person and a self-made success. Where she has her feet on the ground, Sam seems adrift on risky vicissitudes. Sam, himself, appears to be Amanda’s own uncertain adventure.
For Chris Knopf (and Sam Acquillo) self-scrutiny and moral accountability have entered the consciousness of the modern crime fiction hero. Not that they mind ignoring their better instincts. Pondering his responsibilities to his girlfriend, Acquillo thinks, “I had a lot more to figure out than what to do with Amanda. Something I’d never do with a mind so evenly divided against itself.”
Refreshingly, Mr. Knopf continues the evolution of his character less a slave to testosterone than to pugilism. Acquillo the mechanic always sees things analytically, such as this roundhouse punch:
“I put the gun back in its holster, took a step forward and smashed him in the face with my good left hand. Knocking someone out with a single punch is a lot harder to do than people think. . . . Hammon’s head whipped back and he crumpled to the ground like an imploding building. It’s not the blow to the face that does the work, it’s the brain smacking into the inside of the skull.”
Acquillo’s “ditch bag” is a kind of all-around tool kit that also serves as a metaphor for Mr. Knopf’s own aptitude for organized handicraft. Embarking on a dark night of unpleasantness, Acquillo takes along in this bag a small flashlight, a Swiss army knife, wire cutters, heavy-duty wire cutters, a Glock 9-millimeter pistol, surgical gloves, a compass, a Buck knife, and Vise-Grips. Of course he needs them all.
Not surprisingly, the author’s father was a mechanical engineer. His grandfather was a boxer. He himself is an able carpenter and onetime mechanic, besides being the creative director of an advertising agency — a man who can assemble and disassemble the pieces of a larger whole, such as an engine or the plot of a story.
“Black Swan” was preceded by “The Last Refuge,” “Two Time,” “Head Wounds,” and “Hard Stop.” The New York Times and The Boston Globe have reviewed Mr. Knopf with high praise, while his books have been included on best-of-the-year lists compiled by The Times and Publishers Weekly.
Bookshelves groan under the weight of crime fiction, but Sam Acquillo and his friends are fast rising to the top. Although it’s sometimes hard to tell where Acquillo ends and Chris Knopf begins, the author knows the neighborhood from long and insightful experience. His hero reflects it, always with droll, beguiling commentary.
Chris Knopf has a house in Southampton.
Jeane Bice is a writer and sailor who lives in East Hampton. He is at work on a book about life and death in rural upstate New York.