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Sleuthing on the East End: Sam Acquillo is back in Chris Knopf’s fourth book

Posted on 22 June 2009

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Fans of Chris Knopf’s series of Hamptons thrillers will be happy to know that this summer, the lovable loser Sam Acquillo is back and once again, mired in a heap of trouble.

“Hard Stop” is Knopf’s fourth book in the series and this time, Acquillo, an amateur detective with a troubled past and questionable future, finds himself sleuthing for a missing person in exchange for a potentially big payday. From confronting intruders in his bayfront cottage, to doing a little breaking and entering of his own, and downing vodka and burgers at the Pequot — an imaginary seaside bar and restaurant in Sag Harbor, those who have come to love Acquillo’s rough edges won’t be disappointed. 

For Knopf, it is the rough edges of life on the East End that he finds most captivating — the parallel universe that exists largely north of the highway where the people who keep this place humming live their year round existence.

Knopf, a Philadelphia native, first got to know this place through his wife, Mary Farrell, who spent summers in North Sea as a child in a cottage her father built back in 1952. And North Sea is where the fictional Sam Acquillo lives — in his late parents’ cottage on Peconic Bay with his Wheaton terrier, Eddie and a cast of characters — some legit, some not — who add spice to what would otherwise be a lonely existence at the edge of the sea. Readers might suspect that the setting and main character for Knopf’s books came from envisioning what type of person would live year round in a tiny cottage on the water.

“I imagined someone in that house, some poor burnout staring out the window, and a porch looking out on the bay,” says Knopf. “I’m a very aquatic person, going to the Jersey Shore all my life. I was a life guard for four years and a competitive swimmer. The seashore is my natural habitat. I love the beauty and the light in the air, the water. Imaging myself sitting in that cottage, it grew from there.”

Knopf and his wife live in Connecticut where his day job is as chairman and executive creative director at Mintz & Hoke, an ad agency. The couple also have a home in Southampton and they come down practically every weekend to help Farrell’s 94 year old mother, who still lives in the North Sea cottage.

Several of the characters in his books are an amalgamation of the local people Knopf has met via his wife’s contacts over the years. In many ways, Knopf’s books reflect an East End of a couple decades ago. Anyone who’s been here for more than a few years knows it’s getting harder and harder to find bars like the Pequot with patrons who make their living from the sea or quiet, secluded places where the summer crowds never venture.

“The dirty secret about the Hamptons is it’s really become a suburban world,” says Knopf. “People make their money other places and come out here. The locals are still around, but they’re a dying breed.

Which is what ultimately makes his books so much fun. Knopf’s East End is a universe just slightly askew of reality —like a dream version of this place. Accurate, but not quite right. Names have been changed and locations altered to protect the innocent and keep readers guessing.

“I’m taking reality and messing around with it,” says Knopf. “I think there’s a real trick to that. It’s real, but not real. I have Sam showing up at the Golden Pear in Southampton, but I call it the coffee place on the corner. I also talk about the hardware store and the big restaurant on Main Street – which is 75 Main.”

And in Sag Harbor, the Pequot is a shady drinking hole by the water that sits not far from the bridge. Think you know the place? Chances are you probably did at one time.

“I got to see Sag Harbor when it was still seedy,” says Knopf. “When I first saw Sag Harbor, it was rag tag, but looked more genuine and authentic. Everyone drove their cars back and forth on Main Street, like ‘American Graffiti.’”

Setting counts for a great deal, but that’s just part of writing a compelling thriller. Devising plot twists and turns to hold readers’ interest through four books is quite a talent, and one that Knopf admits didn’t come naturally, but rather he learned through experience.

“You have to create mini-mysteries within a mystery,” he says. “All mysteries are a succession of solutions. It maintains suspense, but gives the reader satisfaction of learning things all along.”

“If there’s a knife lying in the middle of a house with a blood on it, you ask whose blood is it? It gives the protagonist velocity,” he adds. “I like to have a couple of these things going and have them converge. It’s the narrative arc. You build, but not forever. Then there’s a plateau — a set piece, with real drama. It’s an exciting moment that gives the reader some satisfaction and fun. That sort of general pattern is standard for all action books.”

Knopf’s publisher is The Permanent Press, a Sag Harbor based company run by husband and wife team Martin and Judith Shepard. Despite his many literary enemies, a lot of people obviously have taken a liking to Sam Acquillo. All three previous books made the prestigious Book Sense Picks List, the top 20 titles selected monthly by independent bookstores of The American Booksellers Association. Knopf’s last Acquillo book, “Head Wounds” was voted best mystery of 2008 by the Independent Book Publishers Association.

“I’m an indy darling,” grins Knopf whose books are read across the country and around the world, having been published in a variety of other languages. Sam Acquillo’s not the only one getting attention. In early 2010, Jackie Swaitkowski, Sam’s tough talking lawyer, will spin off with a book series of her own through St. Martin’s Press.

“They seem to hold up outside of here,” says Knopf of his books. “There is fascination with the Hamptons that doesn’t hurt. Another great base is people who used to live here and don’t anymore.”

On Saturday, June 27 at 6 p.m., fans of Sam Acquillo are invited to come hear Chris Knopf read from “Hard Stop” at Canio’s Books (290 Main Street, Sag Harbor).

 Top: Chris Knopf

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