Head Hunters

By Michael Z. Jody
Chris Knopf David DiMicco

“You’re Dead”
Chris Knopf
Permanent Press, $29.95

Barely seven pages into “You’re Dead,” the newest mystery by Chris Knopf, a murder is discovered. “I moved around the condo, but found nothing else out of the ordinary. Until I walked into the spare bedroom and saw the head of Paresh Rajput, the owner of my company, ExciteAble Technologies, in the center of a small lake of dark red blood.”

The head-finder, and first-person narrator, is a psychologist named Waters, or sometimes Dr. Waters. We are never told his given name. Someone asks him if he doesn’t like his first name and he replies, “Never stuck.”  

Waters has a childhood diagnosis of autism, which, with the help of his older brother (also, I believe, never named), he manages to learn to compensate for. Waters works as a kind of industrial psychologist and right-hand man for Paresh and his aerospace company, and sometimes also as a consultant forensic psychologist for the New Haven police. Both of these positions come in handy during the course of this murder mystery.  

When Waters goes into work the next day, Megan Rajput, Paresh’s Irish-American wife, now widow, is waiting to speak with him. “Megan was ten years younger than Paresh and nuttier by many orders of magnitude. . . . I liked her despite her tendency to blurt out inappropriate comments at social events and more than once stuff her tongue in my mouth in the midst of a good-bye kiss.” 

“Who would do this?” Megan asks him, and “Who’s next?” It has not occurred to Waters that there may be more murders in the offing. But as soon as he gets to his office, the phone is ringing.

I dropped my briefcase on the conference table and snatched it off the cradle. 

“You’re dead,” said a robotic voice, a male voice, mechanized and unmodulated.

“Who are you?”

“Your killer.”

Then he hung up.

A few minutes later, Waters gets a phone message: “Not everyone gets notified of their impending death,” the mechanical voice tells him and then hangs up.  

Andy Pettigrew, the police psychologist Waters consults for, says, “There’s some logic to knocking off the CEO, but why you?” Things get even more confusing when Waters receives a cellphone alert that someone has dumped $100,000 into his money market account on the very day of the murder. And shortly thereafter he is told by one of the detectives investigating the murder that his mortgage has been paid off. In full.  

“I didn’t do it,” I said.

A sudden stillness gripped the austere interview room. The accountant and two homicide detectives were fixed in place, their eyes trying hard to look into mine. It was then I knew the question I’d hear next.

“Pay off the mortgage or kill   Rajput?” said one of the detectives, as he looked back at the one-way mirror and gave a thumbs-up.

It starts to look even worse when, before the police even “had a chance to search my storage unit, the night supervisor for the storage company opened it up and found Paresh’s body.” The odor of the corpse had prompted him to investigate. The headless corpse is posed offering its middle finger to observers. 

Oddly, despite everything evidently pointing toward Waters being framed, the police act as if they think he is the perpetrator. The storage locker had a four-digit combination lock that was intact when the night manager broke it. When Waters’s lawyer asks the cops if there is security camera footage, they acknowledge that someone tampered with the camera.  

“ ‘Resourceful,’ I said. The other three turned their heads to me. ‘He’s very resourceful. It’s gamesmanship.  Cover all the angles, think through all the contingencies. Exciting for anybody, but for people like this guy, it’s nearly orgasmic.’ ”

The cops remain skeptical about Waters.

Waters has been having an affair with Olivia Lefevre, who is married, for about a year.  

“He’s a PI,” she said. “Former homicide detective with the NYPD. His name is Erik. With a K.”

“And a good guy.”

“Sort of.”

“And you love him.”

“Very much,” she said.

“But he doesn’t entirely trust you.”

“No. And stop doing that.”

“What?”

“Reading my mind.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Occupational hazard.”

“I can read yours too. You’re wondering why I’m naked in bed with you with my head resting on your shoulder.”

“Because it’s more comfortable than standing on your head?”

“He’s programmed to protect. Me above all others. Which means it gets a little smothering.”

Waters and Olivia take elaborate precautions when they meet, using coded texts and conversations. For Waters, who is single, things are simple: He just goes where they are to meet. But for Olivia it is “a day of convoluted travel, double reverse maneuvers, disguises, and heightened awareness.”  

The next time Waters and Olivia rendezvous at a French restaurant, Erik with a K shows and pulls up a chair. His smile is “all mouth and no eyes.” Waters and Olivia cover, saying that she is trying to place Waters as a management consultant, but clearly Erik is suspicious. And Olivia is terrified. After Erik leaves, she kisses Waters on the cheek, tells him, “Please stay away,” and she disappears. 

The mystery comes to focus on a buy offer of $140 million for ExciteAble, the company Paresh had headed (pun not intended), but the sale is endangered by the discovery that the company has apparently been overcharging the government and engaging in some illegal corporate behavior.  

The plot gets extremely complicated at this point, becoming more corporate thriller than murder mystery, with lots of complex financial explanations of various billing and accounting issues. There are many plot twists, head fakes, back histories, crosses and double crosses. The three threads of the mystery — the killing, the corporate buy offer and business shenanigans, and Waters’s affair and the problems that ensue from that — braid and plait and wind around one another.  

I don’t want to be a spoiler, so I will leave the final unwindings of the book unelaborated. As Waters says at one point, “A story doesn’t have to be true. . . . It just has to appear to be true. It’s all about the narrative, the facts are incidental.” Suffice it to say that there is enough mysterious material here for two thrillers.


Michael Z. Jody, a longtime book reviewer for The Star, is a psychoanalyst and couples counselor with offices in Amagansett and Manhattan.

Chris Knopf lives in Southampton and Connecticut.