HELL HOLE is both a return and a departure for Chris Grabenstein. It's a return in the sense that it's another welcome addition in the John Ceepak series. Ceepak is a Sea Haven, New Jersey police officer who subscribes to a rigid and impressive code of honor. The stories are told through the voice of his partner, Danny Boyle, a method that infuses Ceepak with an enigmatic air, given that we don't know too much about him to begin with and are dependent upon what (precious little) Boyle learns during the course of each succeeding book. The departure for Grabenstein is that HELL HOLE, the fourth in the series, is much darker in tone and substance than the previous installments, being closer in mood to what are now known as his "holiday" books.
Sea Haven is a vacation destination, so that it is accordingly fitting that HELL HOLE begins with Boyle being dispatched to a rental house on a noise complaint. Upon arriving, he finds a group of soldiers home on leave and getting rowdier, and more intoxicated, by the minute. The party becomes deathly somber, however, when the soldiers receive a telephone call notifying them that Corporal Shareef Smith, one of their brothers in arms, is found dead at a rest area on the Garden State Parkway with a map to their house in his pocket. Boyle offers Sergeant Dale Dixon a ride to the site to identify the victim, thus neatly involving the Sea Haven police in the matter. The death appears to be a grisly suicide, but something about the scene doesn't look quite right, an impression that is confirmed by Ceepak when he checks out the photos of the scene. Rather than being a clear, if somewhat messy, suicide, it slowly becomes apparent that Johnson was the victim of a murder.
There is a nice contrast between Boyle and Ceepak as they proceed through their investigation, with Boyle jumping to serial conclusions while the more experienced, older Ceepak gently reins Boyle in by example, taking a step-by-step approach to reaching conclusions as opposed to making a 10-foot jump to them. The backdrop of Sea Haven, a fictional New Jersey resort town, as a setting for this and the other Ceepak novels is a stroke of nothing less than genius. Beneath the vacationers, and the constant sun, surf and alcohol, there is a gritty subculture of drugs and violence that only occasionally raises its head but that, like a shark, skims along just beneath the surface.
It is at first thought that one of the denizens of that undercurrent --- a group of trailer park occupants best known as the Feenyville Pirates and responsible for a great deal of the smash-and-grab incidents --- are involved. They are, if only indirectly. The true culprits behind Johnson's murder, however, have friends in high places, and before HELL HOLE reaches its end, betrayals great and small will abound, as Ceepak and Boyle pull out all the stops and follow the leads in pursuing justice for Johnson, no matter where the trail takes them.
One gets so caught up in Grabenstein's spot-on description of the environs of the south central Jersey coast that it becomes easy to overlook what an accomplished plotter he is. One example: the crime scene. Grabenstein has the Garden State Parkway rest areas --- the tired restaurants, the overpriced gas station trinkets, the restrooms --- down perfectly. If you have ever stopped at these places even once, it all will come back to you. Yet it is the plotting and characterization that truly make the book a success.
Although I found Grabenstein's choice of villains unfortunate, I was overwhelmed by his ability to infuse a pair of small town resort police --- well, three actually --- with a likable and credible ability to pursue a lead here and a clue there to a resolution. Throw in a couple of additional factoids about Ceepak's past --- could he possibly be from Mason, Ohio, a town not entirely unlike Sea Haven? --- and a potential love interest for Boyle, plus an unresolved issue or two, and you have another winning book in a continuing series that I happily will read for life.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 27, 2011