Perhaps it’s the passing of legendary voice actor Don LaFontaine last Monday, but I can’t help wondering what the trailer for Chris Knopf’s latest mystery, Head Wounds (Permanent Press 2008), might sound like if the book were made into a film. In fact, I can almost hear the so-called “Voice of God” tantalizing us with the following: It was just another day for Sam Acquilano when his whole life suddenly turned upside-down.
As with many great Hollywood thrillers, Head Wounds follows a familiar pattern. The grizzled hero with a shady past is framed for a murder he didn’t commit. Yet while the pattern is certainly familiar, at no times does Knopf appear to be re-treading old ground. Indeed, his prowess as a storyteller allows Knopf to apply Ezra Pound’s mandate to “make it new” to the detective genre. Thus while the novel certainly hits many recognizable marks as Knopf weaves his version of a classic trope, it also takes a number of unexpected turns, most significantly with regard to setting and character.
Knopf’s facility with setting is apparent. The novel is set in the fabled Hamptons, summer playground of the exceedingly well to do. At the same time, however, Knopf’s vision is of the seedy underbelly of the Hamptons. To put it bluntly, I seriously doubt anyone will ask Knopf to write a travel brochure for the region anytime soon.
With regard to character, Knopf does a wonderful job of populating his fictive world with memorable and exciting characters who do everything they can to resist the bonds of cliché. Yes, protagonist and narrator Sam Acquilano is a dark, brooding chain-smoker who enjoys a good drink, but he’s also a pragmatist at heart. When asked why he never drinks in the vicinity of power tools, he replies matter-of-factly that it’s “hard to maintain a respectable drinking habit without fingers or thumbs.” Similarly, while Acquilano abhors the “plague of sophistication spreading through the Hamptons, infecting even indigenous dive bars,” he’s still not above (or perhaps below) brewing a pot of gourmet Viennese cinnamon coffee to fortify himself against the peril and deception that besiege him from all sides. In many ways, the man is a walking contradiction, yet it’s this inherent and ongoing state of contradiction that makes him so interesting to watch as he goes about trying to clear his name while simultaneously doing everything within his power to destroy his own life, such as it is.
Throughout Head Wounds, Knopf proves himself as a superb writer who is highly adept at taking the old tropes and making them new. His characters come to life vividly, his sense of setting is spot-on, and, last but not least, the man can craft a real page-turner. A great read for the fan of hard-boiled mystery.