- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2011

By Chris Knopf
Minotaur Books, $25.99, 296 pages

We’re in the Hamptons, Southhampton to be specific, and as the book opens, hot-looking young female real estate lawyer-turned-criminal defense attorney Jackie Swaitkowski is chilling out by indulging in a favorite pastime, leaning on a fence and watching a group of show horses in the field. But her reverie is broken by the sound of a small plane: “… my heart leaped to my throat as I realized a trail of gray-black smoke was suddenly pouring from the engine as the plane wobbled drunkenly through the air.”

Within minutes, the plane has crashed, plowing headfirst into the field and killing the pilot. But just before the crash, Jackie got a good look at the pilot, a woman about her own age, who, just before the fatal impact managed to toss a package out of the plane. Lawyer Swaitkowski thinks the doomed flier wanted her to have it.

The package turns out to be a camera case, and although Jackie knows she should be handing it over to the investigators, her curiosity gets the better of her and she keeps it, at least long enough to look at the pictures on the digital card. They show an interesting group of people attending a charity fundraiser, most of whom are local swells she recognizes.

But the dead pilot and her extended family are from the other side of the tracks, or the runway if that’s how it works in the Hamptons. And while they may be blue- collar people, they are by no means solid citizens. The pilot, Eugenie Birkson, is married to an airplane mechanic who’s an ex-con, as is Eugenie’s father, and, we learn a good bit later, Lawyer Swaitkowski’s brother, whom she hasn’t seen for more than a decade.

And Eugenie was no debutante. Well before she took up flying, she was a biker chick, but not the kind that rides behind, hanging on to her man on the Harley. She was a crack rider, fearless and highly skilled, before she was a mechanic and then later an equally intrepid flier.

She ran an air-taxi business, and many of her clients were from the same group of swells mentioned above, big moneymakers whose deals were too important to depend on scheduled airline flights. Jackie wonders if Eugenie Birkson may have been involved with one or more of these people in something illegal. A friend with a for-hire airplane can be downright convenient, whether you’re in the Caribbean or on Long Island.

When Jackie turns over the card to the police in something less than a timely fashion, they’re none too pleased, and tell her to butt out. She almost does, but when she learns the National Transportation Safety Board is going to conclude the crash was caused by pilot error, she doesn’t buy it. So she butts back in and is soon conducting her own investigation, sub rosa. Both Jackie and the reader are in for a bumpy ride.

Without telling them exactly why she’s knocking on their door and asking questions about Eugenie, she visits the deceased’s father, her husband and her stepson, a nasty piece of work if ever there was one, and also one of the folks in the fundraiser photo, a rich playboy-businessman (who immediately hits on her). The more she learns, the more she suspects someone tampered with the plane in order to cause Eugenie’s death.

Though she’s a very smart cookie, Jackie gets a little help from her friends. Actually, she gets a lot of help from her friends, a truly mixed bag of individuals, all of them with special skills. The divorced Jackie has two particularly close male pals - one is, as they say these days “a friend with privileges,” and the other is … not. But he’s still ready and willing to come to her aid whenever she beckons, which is not a rare occurrence, seeing as she may be on the trail of a resourceful adversary.

As it develops, while amazingly self- reliant, Jackie Swaitkowski needs all the help she can get, because someone is out to put a stop to her investigation, even if that means putting a permanent stop to her. But thanks to the author’s skill as a storyteller, you’re never sure which one of several likely suspects is the culprit.

In this, Chris Knopf’s seventh mystery (several others in his Sam Acquillo series were also set in Southhampton), the plot doesn’t just thicken, it all but coagulates. Yet Mr. Knopf is so skillful a writer you don’t really mind that there seems to be an unusually large cast because he parades them on and off stage with practiced ease. His prose is at times a bit too clever (the author ID says he’s an advertising copywriter), but he tells a rollicking tale with lots of twists and turns, adding up to a great deal of enjoyment. And because he’s been a year-round resident of the Hamptons for two decades, he knows whereof he writes.

“Bad Bird” is a good read.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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