July 05, 2006

Between The Covers

Two-time protagonist Sam Acquillo, only slightly older since his first noir appearance a year ago in The Last Refuge, has lost none of his punch, or bite. Nor has author Chris Knopf lost any of his wit, inventiveness, and skill in merging social criticism of Hamptons high life, often hilarious, with a suspenseful murder mystery.

So engaging is the put-down banter of the characters, that the staccato dialogue almost eclipses the solid story line. Who's behind the car bomb that destroys a Lexus, the man inside and four innocent people at a local restaurant? Sam is wounded by the blast and, more seriously, so is his lady-friend Jackie Swaitkowski, a Sag Harbor lawyer, laid over from The Last Refuge, who knows Sam well enough to tell him to stick to his strengths: "Make the coffee, drive your lunatic car, offend people we meet along the way." Does he ever!

Other visitors from the earlier book also make welcome reappearances, especially a down-to-earth wealthy WASP corporate attorney who provides Knopf with entrée to upscale venues and an opportunity to show that not all the rich and famous are frivolous. It's not necessary, by the way, to have read The Last Refuge because Knopf handles exposition with deft and minimal reference.

Two Time moves out fast with a fresh set of villains and minor characters, including a riotously funny Jamaican doctor, and a sad, mentally ill woman in a nursing home. It also has an innovative psychological twist with cleverly disguised clues throughout. Sam remains as he was in The Last Refuge, a master of sardonic observations that respect the difference between sentiment and sentimentality and that play to a reader's intelligence by way of literary references.

Knopf also provides Sam with a carpentry motif that reinforces his hero's grounding in the real world and his distance from the madding crowd. An MIT engineering grad who was head of a tech and support division at a big corporation before he quit in a principled rage, Sam is also an amateur boxer and professional smart-ass. He lives in a decidedly un-Hampton part of the Hamptons —the "broth" area . . . the soup's over on the ocean side" — in a cottage his father built, staying on the porch most of the time so he can keep an eye on Little Peconic Bay. "After five years, it was still there, so the vigilance must be paying off."

Sam's in no hurry. It takes him three months to get drawn into investigating the murder. At 53, he has only three acknowledged interests: Absolut Vodka, which he consumes in unbelievable quantities, his dog Eddie and his '67 Grand Prix.

Through "avoidance and denial," he thinks he has placed his passion for the beautiful Amanda Anselma, also an import from the earlier novel, behind him, but she's moved in next door, and no way will they be able to ignore the chemistry and camaraderie between them. If Two Time is as sexy as The Last Refuge, it's because Knopf continues to understand the appeal of suggestiveness and understated sensuality.

Two Time is being classified as a murder mystery, which it is, but it is primarily a literate work of fiction, with well-rounded characters and an impressive diversity of subject matter, including high finance, merry-prankster performance art, house construction and boxing. If Knopf is influenced by Dashiel Hammett and Elmore Leonard, he also shows affinity for lyrical prose.

Here's Sam, usually sarcastic or sneeringly silent, musing to himself on a July day "when the air out on the East End hung, like hot, wet gauze, and the sun was busy charring the epidermals of investment bankers, administrative assistants and trophy wives, and irrigation systems drew down the aquifer to convert three-acre flower gardens into simulated rain forests and maintain the water level of organically shaped gunite pools, surrounded by tumbled marble pavers and teak recliners with built-in cupholders drenched in the condensate of crystal, decanted, lime-choked gin and tonics."

Sure, an exciting narrative is worth harvesting, but writing like this also separates the wheat from the chaff.

Two Time by Chris Knopf, The Permanent Press, 226 pp., $26.

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