Tango Down by Chris Knopf is the eighth edition of the Sam Acquillo Mystery series, which disrupts the illusion that the Hamptons are safely immune from the struggles that inflame much of the world and examines how fear of the unknown ignites prejudice and hate, overturning norms of decency and principle.
Chris Knopf is the proverbial jack of all trades. In addition to being a novelist and co-publisher at The Permanent Press, he had a long and award-winning career in advertising and agency management as CEO of Mintz + Hoke. He’s also a house designer, cabinetmaker, sailor, and dog enthusiast—all traits that are shared with the protagonist of his illustrious eight-book Sam Acquillo Hamptons mystery series. Knopf’s work—which includes two other limited series and a standalone, Elysiana—has earned him distinctions that have included the Benjamin Franklin Award for Best Mystery (Head Wounds) and the Nero Award (Dead Anyway), as well as starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, and Library Journal. His last effort, Back Lash (2016), was a finalist for the 2017 Connecticut Book Award.
Knopf returns with Tango Down. As the story opens, Acquillo—a retired engineer turned tradesman and private investigator—is summoned urgently as he arrives at a work site: “Sam, you gotta get in here.” What was meant to be a routine visit becomes anything but with the discovery of homeowner Victor Bollings’s body, found dead in a pool of blood in a second-floor bedroom; it’s clearly a case of homicide, given the evidence of blunt force trauma to the head. The authorities quickly arrest Sam’s friend and associate in the cabinetry trade, Ernesto Mazzotti, for the crime, citing his prints on the murder weapon—a golf club allegedly gifted to him by the victim—as proof.
Despite appearances of an open-and-shut case, Sam is unwavering in his belief that Ernesto has been set up; consequently, he enlists the assistance of defense attorney Jackie Swaitkowski, who’s become accustomed to joining him in battle with a resistant if often begrudgingly reciprocal police force. Though warned off the case by the chief of police, Sam and Jackie refuse to kowtow to governmental pressure.
Further complicating matters is that Ernesto’s Colombian heritage has inflamed the prejudices of the community, which was already outraged over the crime at hand. His lack of an alibi is compounded by his status as an illegal immigrant (and an overall sense of powerlessness), rendering Ernesto a liability to his own defense.
Sam’s investigation soon warrants interference from the international judiciary, which hints at a deeper, darker truth. It also necessitates face time with the victim’s friends and associates, as well as a person or two from Sam’s own past. And while Southampton—more character than setting, given the sublime sense of place that Knopf has created—provides a partial backdrop, this particular plot necessitates that Sam visits both the Virgin Islands and Colombia.
Straying from the norm is always a calculated risk, but Knopf’s departures from tradition have been well thought out and equally well executed, enhancing storylines rather than compromising them. That’s certainly the case here, with Sam’s recognizance missions both propelling the action forward and allowing for tantalizing bits of backstory.
There is much to appreciate in a Knopf novel, but one of the standout elements is his nuanced portrayal of the relationship between Sam and Jackie, which has remained entirely platonic throughout the series despite myriad opportunities for flirtation. Though their dynamic has shifted to a more personal one than professional, their mutual respect (and good-natured razzing) hasn’t diminished; rather, it has grown, thereby showing that men and women really can be just friends and that intimacy and romance aren’t synonymous. Indeed, Sam and Jackie share their first physical encounter here (a hug), and it’s more poignant than entire love stories that have played out on the pages of other people’s books.
As Sam has mellowed (a bit)—meaning he spends more time making cabinets, sailing, and tossing balls to his dog, Eddie, than he does fighting—he’s also grown more introspective. The last few books have found him grappling with fractured familial bonds (an estrangement with his daughter in Cop Job; his father’s unsolved murder in Back Lash; etc.) while navigating a somewhat casual yet still committed relationship with his girlfriend/neighbor, Amanda. Certain events of Tango Down bring their coupling to the forefront, demanding an inventorying of priorities and a confrontation with mortality. It’s a somber thing but also an absorbing and affecting one.
While series often grow old along with their protagonists, Chris Knopf’s storytelling has gotten more adventurous with time, ensuring that Sam Acquillo is as dynamic and compelling as the cases he investigates. Tango Down is a stellar offering that balances the personal, the professional, and the political; hot-button issues make for page-turning suspense when rendered by such capable hands. While crime is the crux of the genre, it’s often the characters that draw readers back—and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anybody who writes them better, or more believable, than Knopf.
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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.