At the start of The Last Refuge (2005), the first novel in this tough, brooding new series by Chris Knopf, SAM ACQUILLO is disillusioned, divorced, and working hard on disassociating himself from everything and everybody.
He has moved into his deceased parents' ramshackle cottage in Southampton, at the tip of Oak Point overlooking Little Peconic Bay. There, in the company of his mutt dog Eddie, who he rescued from a pound gas chamber in order to have an excuse to talk out loud once in awhile “without technically talking to myself”, he is content to sit on the screened-in front porch, smoke Camel cigarettes, drink Absolut vodka, and gaze out over the Little Peconic …
Until his closest neighbor -- a grouchy, demanding old widow who has become dependant upon Sam's handyman capabilities -- turns up dead in her bathtub, an apparent accident. At least at first.
Since the old lady died with no next of kin except for a dim-witted, anti-social nephew, Sam finds himself roped into becoming administrator for the deceased's interests. Surprisingly, it turns out that the woman did not own the house she had lived in for so many years yet there is no record of her ever paying rent and who actually does own the house is mired in a tangle of legal paperwork. One curiosity leads to another and another until Acquillo's suspicions are fully aroused and he ultimately comes to believe the woman's death was no accident at all.
Although not a trained sleuth in any conventional way, Acquillo had for most of his adult life headed a high-level team of troubleshooting engineers for a mega-corporation, a job he'd departed angrily and violently, the first move in a sequence of life-trashing events, up to and including a messy divorce, that ultimately brought him to his self-imposed exile. His engineer's eye for details and his troubleshooter's knack for probing prove to be very useful investigative tools. These, combined with the innate toughness he inherited from his sometimes-brutal father and the physical discipline he'd honed as a semi-pro boxer, make Acquillo a distinct and believable protagonist. He is aided and encouraged by Joe Sullivan, a wary Southampton cop.
By the conclusion of the events in the first book and its sequel, Two Time (2006), Sam is no longer quite the exiled loner he intended to be. He is surrounded by a small cast of quirkily interesting regulars: Sullivan the cop; a couple of lawyers (one male, one female) who are equally colorful but drastically different in their styles; a philosopher-bartender and his tart-tongued daughter; a new neighbor lady who is somewhat demanding in her own rite but anything but old and dour; and, of course, the mutt Eddie.
Knopf's writing is somewhat stylistic, detailed and evocative. His dialogue is crisp and realistic and there are welcome dashes of wry humor that balance the tone perfectly to maintain just the right degree of moodiness.
One hopes we'll be seeing a lot more of Knopf and Acquillo.
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