Michael Haskins

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Last Refuge by Chris Knopf

 Here is chapter one of my friend Chris Knopf's new novel, The Last Refuge. While I live in the comfortable, warm climate of Key West, Chris is up north and writes about Long Island. I like to visit his New York, but via his books. It's too chilly up there  otherwise. I know you will enjoy this tease. The book is available on Kindle.

 Chapter 1

            My father built this cottage at the tip of Oak Point on the Little Peconic Bay in the Town of Southampton, Long Island, in the mid-1940’s when there was nobody else around to build anything.  They were all still at war, most of the young guys anyway, and the older guys were either too poor or too scared of the future - or too damaged by the Depression - to take a chance.  But my Dad had vision before people called it that, and he bought this nine tenths of an acre parcel right at the edge of the bay.  Waterfront, they call it now.  Then it was called stupid and expensive, even though it only cost about $560 a lot. 
            The price of this kind of property has gone up a lot since then.
            He built the house himself, a little at a time, without a mortgage.  The first year he dug the foundation with a pick and shovel, laid up cinder block and put on the first floor deck.  Then he built the rest of the house room by room as he got the money, and the building materials, most of which he scrounged out of local dumps and empty lots and the handful of construction projects that were going up at the time around the City and out on the Island.  
            He was too old for the war, but he fought plenty at home.  My dad wasn’t a nice guy.  He was a real bastard actually, but he treated me okay, most of the time. 
            I live in this place now, by myself.  I was born about the time my father winterized the place, so for all intents and purposes, this is where I grew up.  We also had an apartment in the Bronx where he stayed during the week, but my mother and my sister and I lived on the bay year ‘round after he installed the oil furnace.  I don’t remember ever being in the Bronx, though he used to tell me about the room I had, and how my sister and I played in the backyard around the crabgrass and sumac trees. 
            All I remembered of my childhood was the restless water and neon sunset sky of the bay.  The persistent breeze that could suddenly snap into hysteria and the smell of rotting sea life at low tide.  I’m breathing it in now, and sometimes it seems like life’s only durable reference point.
            The cottage is all on one floor, with a corner-to-corner screened-in front porch facing the Little Peconic.  It’s the best room in the house, and it’s where I sleep all year ‘round.  Beginning about early April, till a little before Christmas, I leave off the windows.  That was why I could always hear Regina Broadhurst moaning in the night.  She slept with her windows open as well, and since her house was right next door, the only thing to stop the noise was the cicadas, the flip-flip of the little bay waves, and about five hundred feet of wind-swept Long Island air.
               I stripped the paint my mother had put over the old varnished knotty pine that covers the walls.  She’d done it to get back at my father for getting killed and leaving her alone on a permanent basis, not just during the week.  I re-varnished it and bought a new fold-out couch and a wood stove for the living room, and a kitchen table and chairs.  Also a bed and a chest of drawers for the porch.  I haven’t got around to doing anything else, but the little cottage feels bigger, and even echoes a little, and at least it’s wiped clean of the cluttered, congealed misery of my parents’ lives.
            This all happened about four years ago after I came out here to stay.  The place had been empty for a while - my mother had spent her last years imploding into herself at a nursing home in Riverhead.  My sister saw her more often than I did, even though she had to fly in from Wisconsin.  I said I was too busy at the company to break away, but actually I couldn’t stand to see my mother in that place surrounded by all those demented, hollowed-out mummies.  Or suffer the reproach I always imagined I saw in the contour of my mother’s set jaw. 
           One afternoon in the Fall of 2000 I was out in the drive under the Grand Prix, where I spent much of the time when the air temperature was above freezing and below 85o. I was under the car on a wood creeper when I caught a whiff of something.  It was strong enough, and strange enough, to stop my work.  Then it seemed to disappear, swept away by the clean, dry October air.  About twenty minutes later it was there again.  Holding the wrench still on the bolt, I stopped turning and took another whiff.  There was something primal in the air.  It reminded me of a pile of leaves I’d once set on fire that had a dead squirrel hidden inside.  Something corrupt, decayed.
            I rolled out from under the car and stood up.  Eddie stood in the middle of lawn and twitched his nostrils at the air. 
            I went inside and washed my hands, then walked back out to the driveway and grabbed a heavy cotton cloth.  I told Eddie to stay in the yard and walked over to Regina’s house.  I rang the doorbell, but she didn’t answer.  I went around the house and tried to look in the windows, but they were obscured by sheer, lacy blinds.  I went to the back door and pounded hard on the casing.  Nothing.  I yelled for her.  Still nothing. 
            I wrapped my hand in the wipe cloth and punched out a window in the kitchen door.  As l reached in to release the lock, I was punched back in the face by the strange smell, only now it was close by and strong enough to take on mass. 
            I put the cloth up to my mouth and walked around inside her place.  She was in the bathtub.  Black and swollen, face down in the water. 
All right, you enjoyed it and here is a review from The East Hampton Star. It will give you a hint for the rest of the story:

The Last Refuge, Chris Knopf

Meet Sam Acquillo: dropped out, burnt out, reclusive, 52-year-old resident of the East End. The first sentence of this stylish, satisfying mystery tells us exactly where.

“My father built this cottage at the tip of Oak Point on the Little Peconic Bay in the Town of Southampton, Long Island, in the mid-1940s when there was nobody else around to build anything.”

Oak Point is ‘the last refuge’ of the title. (To save you the bother: TheYellow Book map has a dozen Oaks of one sort and another but no Oak Point.) Sam’s neighbor on the beach side of Noyac Road is an ornery, flinty old harpy (Sam's words) living on $12,000 per annum, for whom he performs handyman chores when summoned. Sam it is, unsummoned, who finds her dead in her bathtub. His curiosity awakens because he knows the arthritic old lady never took a bath. She took showers.

Nobody else wanting the job, he becomes the court-appointed administrator of her estate. “I’m trying to clean things up,” he explains. Curiosity killed the cat, or in Sam’s case, comes mighty close.

Sam had been a highly paid engineer, head of technical services at a mighty corporation. He had invented a doodad (details provided) to improve the fuel efficiency of automobiles. He understands bath plugs and the innards of irons, everyday utensils pertinent to more than one murder.

He quit his corporation when it decided to sell off his profitable division. At the same time he quit his socialite wife. His daughter quit him. So here he is alone with Eddie, a mutt never happier than when chasing tennis balls batted by his master across the scruffy grass and onto the beach, or sitting in the car with his head out of the window. Sam inherited cottage and car from his parents, the car his dad's “big, stupid” 1967 Pontiac Grand Prix.

Sam is world-weary, cynical. The divorce settlement swallowed up his bank account, not that he cares about money. He smokes, drinks copious vodka (not before lunchtime), and more copious coffee (even cinnamon hazelnut), readsde Tocqueville, enjoys Vivaldi and jazz, has never owned a TV, and is attractive to women.

Sounds familiar? Here is a 21st-century offspring of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Remember? ”Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid” Not that the streets of Sag Harbor and environs are mean. But of the slew of crime fiction set in the Hamptons, here is that rarity, a story focused not on the rich and the chi-chi but on regular people, and on nature: the air, light, and briny, woodsy smells of the East End. Every few pages we have a reminder of the ocean.

“ The wind was knocking the tops off the waves before they broke on shore, sending up a foamy spray that the sun lit into slivers of pale gray glass.”
” The water was rippled and slick, silver-blue like a sharkskin suit”
” Some lights were still lit over on Nassau Point and Hog's Neck, full of guys on porches, staring back into the mysteries of Little Peconic Bay.”

Greed drives the story. Do the following terms give you a frisson?

Real estate, development, property values, subdivisions, wetlands, zonings,hearings, housing permits, appeals board, nonconformance, leases, exclusives, variances, bulldozers, backhoes. As dryly, factually used every week in our Hamptons newspapers, perhaps not, but they are at the heart ofthis classy, wholly credible page-turner.

Sam, with plenty of time, forges ahead, asking questions, knocking on doors, being shown the door, backing away from sexy, lonely ladies, and closing in on the truth. He is beaten to a pulp and wakes up in Southampton Hospital. His odyssey takes him hither and yon: to, for example, Shelter Island, to a fictional nightclub on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, and to factual Dune Road, Southampton. He muses on the admission price for aplace on Dune Road, starting at around $20 million.

“When my father started digging the foundation hole for his cottage, nobody but reclusive eccentrics wanted to live out in the dunes. It was a wilderness where locals like us camped and had family barbecues and risked our lives body surfing in storm swept seas. Now it was the realization of billionaires’ dreams”

At the other end of the spectrum, the trade parade. “An endless caravan oftradesmen's vans and pickups and customized Japanese economy cars filled with Hispanic day workers in sweatshirts and baseball caps. And S.U.V.s and newer cars bringing in the professionals and sales clerks who lived up island where you could still afford to buy a house.

This is the debut novel of Chris Knopf. The blurb tells us that he is a house designer, cabinetmaker, musician, award-winning copywriter, and head of a marketing communications agency. He lives with his wife and two terriers in Connecticut and Southampton Village.

Sam achieves a measure of redemption and wins, as he must in the morality tale that is crime fiction. Along the way we have wit, sparky dialogue, suspense, and mobs of flesh-and-blood characters from low-lifes to a gay, patrician, Croesus-rich lawyer, a true gentleman, to revive lingering hopes that money may not necessarily be the root of all evil.

Ah yes, and an appealing woman. Word has it that a sequel is under way.Should the lady reappear let’s hope she will not curb Sam’s vodka, caffeine, and nicotine intake too much. He is excellent value as he is.
Highly recommended.

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