I love New Jersey. Seriously. Take Route 3 through Clifton and on the west side of the highway there's a great diner called The Tick Tock, which is impossible to pass up. Take the Garden State Parkway south to Red Bank and drive through downtown; you'll travel blocks without seeing a chain store. I even love Newark and Orange and Atlantic City. And Jersey women? They all come from heaven. And even though I'm not a beach guy, there's nothing like the Jersey coast --- with the resort towns, the vacationers, and the cotton candy. As Chris Grabenstein points out in his impressive debut novel, there are also amusement parks, with all of the usual amenities --- including, most importantly, the Tilt-A-Whirl.
The narrator of TILT A WHIRL is Danny Boyle, a part-time Sea Haven summer cop who patrols during the day and parties at night. Boyle is partnered with John Ceepak, a newly-minted officer who has just returned from MP duty in Iraq. Ceepak is all right angles, a natural leader who leads by quiet example and who appears to be in need of some R & R following his war experiences. Some quiet duty in a summer resort town would seem to be just what the doctor ordered --- until billionaire real estate mogul Reggie Hart is gunned down on the Tilt-A-Whirl at an amusement park early on a Sunday morning. The only witness is Ashley, the victim's daughter, who is discovered stumbling, in shock, down the Sea Haven main drag.
The murderer is identified as a vagrant drug addict who is well-known to the Sea Haven Police Department but who has seemingly dropped out of sight --- at least until Ashley is kidnapped. The police receive a ransom note, putting Ceepak and Boyle in a race against time to find both Ashley and her kidnapper.
There is much more involved here, however, than there would seem to be at first blush. Ceepak has a finely honed instinct for solving crimes, and there are several elements of the murder and kidnapping that don't sit quite right with him. Boyle's narration is mostly about Ceepak, and the reader gets a view of him through Boyle's eyes, which is up close and personal --- a comparison to Watson and Holmes wouldn't be inaccurate or unfair to any of the parties --- without being fawning. Ceepak isn't a genius and makes a number of mistakes along his investigative way, but he is able to doggedly regroup and renew his pursuit of the murderer and kidnapper.
TILT A WHIRL takes the reader down a number of paths. While there are elements of humor along the way, this is ultimately a very dark journey, one that is played out in the shadows rather than the sun.
Grabenstein has hit upon a winning combination with Ceepak and Boyle, and the Sea Haven setting. While superficially cheerful and idyllic, it has just enough hints of hidden but deep-seated corruption and vice to provide for a motivation for further crime-ridden visits. We'll most definitely look forward to them.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 15, 2006