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Head Wounds by Chris Knopf
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Head Wounds (2008)

by Chris Knopf

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Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Sam Acquillo can hide in his windswept waterfront cottage all he wants, but the demons of his past are going to find him. Worse, they've teamed up with some pretty nasty demons of the present, including a very determined Chief of Police whose top detective has Sam caught in the crosshairs.

Part-time carpenter, full-time drinker and co-conspirator with an existential mutt named Eddie Van Halen, Sam tries to lead the simple life. But as always, fate intervenes, this time in the form of Robbie Milhouser, local builder and blundering bully who shares at least one thing with Sam -- an irresistible attraction to the beautiful Amanda Anselma.

Peel back the glitz and glory of the fabled Hamptons and you'll find a beautiful place filled with ugly secrets. This is Sam Acquillo's world. Moving effortlessly across the social divide with wry pal Jackie Swaitkowski and rich guy Burton Lewis, the ex-boxer, ex-corporate infighter seems doomed to straddle the thin red line between envy and love, hate and forgiveness, goodness and greed.

And sometimes life and death. Only this time, the life at stake is his own. .

My Review: This third entry in the Sam Acquillo Hamptons series is, as usual, superior storytelling and top-flight modern noir.

It's set in glitz-a-licious Southampton, New York. The seamy underbelly of same, of course, this being noir. And oh my gracious me is this underbelly seamy! Real estate, in a world as awash in money as Southampton, is going to attract some very unpleasant people. Those there are aplenty in this tale of long-held grudges and long-simmering feuds.

Amanda, Sam's sexy relationship-avoidance cospecialist, is the motivating factor for the story when her efforts to redevelop the neighborhood home she owns in North Sea (Prolehampton, for those not gifted with a Long Island connection) lead to arson and murder, with a trail back to a very dark part of Amanda's pre-glitz Southampton youth. Sam, still running from his inner demons, finds that running from a murder rap is a lot harder than he supposed it would be for an innocent man. Which he's sure he is. We the readers? Well....

Knopf gets the tone of an aging loner's inner monologue pitch-perfect. He knows the indignity of looking in the mirror and seeing someone's grandfather looking back at you from your own eyes. He puts that into Sam's casus belli with the world. Knopf also makes sure we know, without being stupid or unrealistically smutty about it, that Sam's not dead from the waist down, and a cross-section of Southampton Township's females are pleasantly aware of this fact. It's very nice for someone Sam's age to be shown as realistically sexually active and alive, instead of a hyper horndog or simply a man gelded by age.

It's even nicer that Knopf doesn't use it as a ridiculous prop. Sam, while tempted and while quite elozable, isn't about to run out and make more trouble for himself with his bedroom behavior. It's about the only wise thing he does. Glad he picked this one.

Less well-handled are the ins and outs (!) of some series characters, eg Sam's rich lawyer pal Burton and a local paper reporter...clearly inserted for future use; the Township's cops aren't there as more than props; but all of these are minor issues, because the pacing of the story makes deep investments in these sidebar people unwieldy and even, to some degree, undesirable. A little more, a little little bit more...in the name of enriching the tapestry...sacrifice some of the angsting and repetitive violence....

Yes, the violence mandatory in noir is there. Sometimes drearily predictably so. There's a scene with a goon that goes on too long, and in the end is resolved unrealistically, at the end of the book, that strikes me as something we could've done without and missed nothing. A few times, flashbacks to Sam's past are, well, I myownself found that skimming them caused no diminishment in my reading pleasure.

But here's the reason I keep looking for these books, which seem to come out every two years or so: This quote, from the very end of Part 2:
But old Kant would tell you, reality is only as sure as the mind perceiving it. I wished I could get him to take {the doctor}'s seat across from me in the hospital canteen to I could put it to him straight:
Can a man be outsmarted by his own brain?

If that fails to raise a smile on you, this book is not for you.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. ( )
  richardderus | Sep 30, 2012 |
The third book in the continuing tale of Sam Acquillo, ex-R&D engineer hotshot turned crime-solving alcoholic carpenter. The book is much better than that sentence made it sound, although anyone intrigued enough to give it a shot should really start at the beginning of the series, since the smallness of the setting leads to some repitition in later books. The books are set in the Hamptons, posing the same problems authors since Agatha Christie have had to deal with: why is there so much crime in this wealthy, pastoral community? Author Chris Knopf deals with it here by extending a story set in motion by events in the previous books, and also including some long flashbacks.

Books like this are always difficult for me to evaluate. I had a real feeling of disappointment after finishing it. In particular, I felt the author tried too hard to make the protagonist into an asshole without really providing enough justification for his actions. One of the plot points hinges on a medical worry that didn't really make much sense to me. There is a twist towards the end that was somewhat contrived.

But ultimately for me, what counts is the answer to the question: how badly did the story make me want to see it through to the end? And the answer is that I finished Head Wounds in one sitting, keeping me up till 4am. I maintain that any book that can command my attention like that simply must be good, even if I am unable to articulate why. ( )
  EdKupfer | Jul 17, 2009 |
The stakes are higher in Head Wounds, the third in the Sam Acquillo series set in the Hamptons. As a former boxer, Sam has had his share of knocks on the head. Actually, according to his doctor, he's had more than his share, and he'd better take it easy if he values his ability to string two words together. But when a local builder, Robbie Milhouser, is found murdered with one of Sam's construction tools after harassing Sam's girlfriend, Amanda, Sam is forced to poke around to defend himself against a murder charge, trying to avoid injury from Robbie's thug buddies. The tension in this entry is relentless: not only regarding Sam's possible incarceration, but his health and relationship with Amanda. The plot is as satisfying as ever, an engineer's dream in complexity, the Hamptons so real I can picture the setting every step of the way, and Sam's character development continues in a believable, endlessly interesting, fashion.

http://hollybooknotes.blogspot.com ( )
  noranydrop2read | Apr 6, 2009 |
"Ex-boxer and former corporate exec Sam Acquillo, now a hard-drinking carpenter living in a run-down cottage on the shores of the Little Peconic Bay in Southampton, N.Y., becomes the prime suspect in the murder of local builder Robbie Milhouser in Knopf’s superb third Hamptons mystery (after Two Time and The Last Refuge). With the evidence against him almost overwhelming, Acquillo enlists a misfit group of supporters to help him uncover the real killer’s identity. As he digs into the dead man’s troubled past, Acquillo discovers a disturbing link between Milhouser and Acquillo’s current girlfriend, Amanda Battiston. Knopf excels in describing the rustic underpinnings of Long Island’s east end, especially its vast array of eccentric characters. Brisk pacing and sharp dialogue carry the reader along, but it’s the endearing and deeply flawed Acquillo that’s the heart and soul of this exceptional series. How can you go wrong with a philosophizing hero who drinks Absolut, reads Kant, drives a ’67 Grand Prix and has a dog named Eddie Van Halen?" -Publishers Weekly
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  permanent | Jan 29, 2009 |
another NE part of the country series. ex-boxer, engineer, drinker, carpenter finds himself accused of murder
around a backdrop of development
  mtnmamma | Oct 4, 2008 |
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Moving effortlessly across the social divide with wry pal Jackie Swaitkowski and rich guy Burton Lewis, the ex-boxer, ex-corporate infighter seems doomed to straddle the thin red line between envy and love, hate and forgiveness, goodness and greed ... and sometimes, life and death.… (more)

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