It’s so nice to have John Ceepak and Danny Boyle back again. If you are unfamiliar with Chris Grabenstein’s mysteries, then ROLLING THUNDER, the sixth installment in the series, is a great place to start. Ceepak and Boyle are senior/junior partners in the Sea Haven, New Jersey Police Department. Sea Haven is a semi-seedy Jersey shore resort destination with enough trouble to give them job security for years to come. Ceepak is a war veteran who is all right angles and, by reputation and in reality, never lies; Boyle is his somewhat younger understudy and the narrator of the series.
Grabenstein is a wonderful author who has quickly moved to the A-lists of the readers who have encountered this series, in part due to the endearing traits of his memorable characters. He also has that rare ability to give readers plenty of detail without bogging down the narrative in minutiae. The result is a story that flows swiftly but with heft, much like a roller coaster, which is precisely what the book happens to be.
Let us put things in context. Rolling Thunder is the name of a brand-new roller coaster that is all set to take its inaugural run in Sea Haven on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, which, as Boyle hastens to inform us in the opening paragraphs of the book, unofficially starts the resort season. But Rolling Thunder hardly gets out of the gate before claiming its first victim: Paddy O’Malley’s wife, its owner. The O’Malley family is interesting, and each member is worth the price of admission to the novel all by themselves. It appears that Mrs. O’Malley’s already overstrained heart succumbed to the excitement of the roller coaster ride. The reaction of her family to her demise, however, is not exactly what one might expect, and it arouses at least a tickle of suspicion with Ceepak and Boyle. They don’t have much time to explore it, though, since another death --- this one certainly a grisly murder --- follows almost immediately, requiring that they devote all their energy to the investigation.
As Yogi Berra so famously noted, “(Y)ou can observe a lot just by watching,” and indeed, Ceepak and Boyle utilize their powers of observation with interrogation and the good old practice of kicking over rocks in order to follow a trail that leads not only to the corridors of city and state government but also back to their own department, among other places. Grabenstein creates an interesting yet not overly complex mystery that is populated by familiar characters, both likable and otherwise, resulting in a story that is entertaining without sacrificing word craft.
One of my favorite elements of these mysteries is that each novel moves the lives of Ceepak and Boyle along, at least a bit. ROLLING THUNDER is no exception. While Ceepak’s ready-made family is kept off the pages for most of the book, an element of the past comes back once again to haunt him, with an unexpected conclusion. And Boyle experiences some potential changes in his life, ones that have the power to challenge his dedication to his job --- or perhaps to make it stronger. Readers who have been around from the beginning of the series will be delighted, as always, while those for whom this is the first ride will no doubt buy return tickets for earlier volumes.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011