Anyone familiar with the Sam Acqillo Hamptons mysteries knows that Chris Knopf is, to say the least, no slouch when it comes to storytelling. Sharp dialogue, strong pacing, and complex characters bring titles like Head Wounds and Hard Stop to life and place Knopf in the company of such luminaries of hard-boiled fiction as Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, and Walter Mosley. With Elysiana, his latest novel, Knopf breaks new ground by plying the tools of the suspense trade to a tale that’s equal parts mystery, romance, nostalgia, and political intrigue.
In many ways, the novel’s title is a hint of what lies between the covers. The Elysian Fields, after all, were known in ancient times as the resting place of the brave and virtuous. Similarly, the island town of Elysiana – a fictionalized amalgam, for those familiar with the South Jersey shore, of Strathmere, Avalon, and Stone Harbor – is a vacation spot populated by heroes of a distinctly modern stripe, most notably the town’s lifeguards.
Yet Elysiana is, thankfully, no Baywatch, and Knopf’s lifeguards run the gamut of intellectual and emotional complexity. For example, there’s the brain-damaged yet brilliant Jack Halcyon, the sole inhabitant of an otherwise abandoned resort hotel that towers over the island. Then there’s Avery Volpe, the no-nonsense head of the beach patrol whose heart belongs to the local crime boss’s wife. Add to the mix a host of scheming politicians, stoner surfers, petty thieves, and other wayward souls (each with their own agenda), and you have the makings of the perfect summertime page-turner.
What really marks Elysiana as a classic is Knopf’s gift for creating compelling characters, and in this respect, the novel is a tour-de-force. Juggling a half-dozen or so major characters whose paths cross in the most Shakespearean of ways, Knopf never misses a beat. As a result, the reader can’t help reading just one more page (regardless of the hour) not just to see what happens next, but to see what happens next to these people. Like anyone we might care about, Knopf’s characters have histories that are both admirable and sordid, with hopes and dreams whose cautious optimism is rendered all the more moving by everything that threatens to tear those dreams asunder.
To put it bluntly, Knopf is a literary craftsman of the highest caliber. With Elysiana, moreover, he lets his imagination run wild and, in so doing, rivals even the Beach Boys at evoking the classic American summer of our collective dreams.
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