I think I have found a new crime fighting hero. Chris Grabenstein’s new John Ceepak novel, Mind Scrambler, the fifth in the series, rocked my world. The story revolves around two Sea Haven detectives who are on administrative leave in Atlantic City. While there, Danny Boyle, Ceepak’s partner and the voice of the narrative, runs into a ex-girlfriend and makes an appointment to meet her. It is a rendezvous she will never make. Danny’s old flame is currently the nanny for a family of performing Magicians currently headlining at a major casino. She is found, after the show, in what appears to be an S&M sex scene gone bad, the victim of over-zealous asphyxiophilia.(Google it or ask your teenager.) With the Atlantic City PD overwhelmed with crime, and the potential media storm and bad publicity, Bolye and Ceepak are deputized to help with the case. As the clues mount, along with the bodies, it becomes crystal clear there is a lot going on behind the scenes, and uncovering the secrets this family of prestidigitators want to keep will not be easy.
Grabenstein lets us peek behind the curtains of one of the oldest shticks in entertainment – the Magic Act. It’s an atmosphere of professional deception, where truth is obscured by illusion. We also get a unfiltered view of the real lifestyle of the supporting cast that makes a high-end Casino Act possible; the seedy, unwashed reality of hardscrabble show-biz. The characters introduced in this episode are vivacious and interesting, if not a shade one-dimensional. We follow as the investigation takes us from the high rollers suite to the side street massage parlour, hitting all the stops in between. All the while we are granted keen, and often hilarious, observations about the world and its patent unfairness and absurdity.
One of the things that makes this book work for me, is the duality of the main characters. John Ceepak is an ex-Marine Officer, that still holds strictly to the West Point Code. His intolerance for the wrong-doings of others is surpassed only by those in himself. Danny Boyle, on the other hand, is a much less chaste individual that, while still being respectable, is not unaccustomed to the occasional fling or the temptations of a good beer. Boyle is also the junior detective in this duo, and it is through his eyes, those of the “average guy”, that we get to see the operation and genius of Ceepak.
Another thing it has going for it is that Grabenstein resists the urge to make allusions to previous adventures in prior books. This novel stands on it’s own, to the extent that I didn’t realize it was part of series until after I had finished. It is very much a book you can just pick up without needing to be privy to all of the past exploits. The quirks that make up the character of John Ceepak are subtly worked into the flow of the text, allowing us a full picture of the man without being obvious. I will have to say that my favorite part off the book is its voice. It is informal and loose, with lots of humor to keep things light. The pace is lively and Grabenstein never lets action lag.
The book does have some flaws. As I alluded to earlier, the supporting characters in this book are pretty one dimensional. And though the plot does take some unexpected turns, and leaves lingering doubt as to the identity of the perpetrator, it is to a large extent transparent. There are too many fortuitous happenings for my taste, easing the path for our intrepid investigators. Those things being said, it was, none-the-less, a pleasure filled read. I was taken back to my younger days reading my father’s who-done-it paperback serials, and all the joy that I remembered from that time was delivered here. I can’t wait to get to Grabenstein’s previous adventures starring these two, while anxiously awaiting his next release.
This book is recommended to all fans of the who-done-it genre, from Colombo to Matt Helm. A typical “guy” book, my wife is halfway through and is thoroughly enjoying it as well. It was one that I simply could not put down.