I can think of few better ways to herald the beginning of summer than to crack the binding of a new John Ceepak mystery by Chris Grabenstein. There is a comfortable similarity of form to the books, each of which is set along the Jersey Shore in the fictional but readily familiar resort town of Sea Haven. Policeman Danny Boyle is the first-person, present-tense narrator of each installment. He stands in the shadows of the more competent, permanently square and squared-away Ceepak, who has a code of conduct and honor that commands respect from all who he might encounter, including Boyle and the reader.
"Grabenstein balances action, humor and mystery in equal measure to create yet another fine beach read that evokes the scent of suntan lotion and the grim reality of what lays just a block or two beyond the vacation fun of the boardwalk."
If the familiar form of the series is what keeps readers coming back, it is the evolving substance of the story that keeps them reading. FUN HOUSE, the latest installment, follows this pattern, as reality television comes to Sea Haven. The show is “Fun House,” and it features 10 contestants --- five males, five females --- who move into Sea Haven and form alliances of sex and convenience with the hope of being the last person standing in order to win a small fortune. Grabenstein makes the participants just stereotypical enough to be familiar, and just obnoxious enough to be entertaining. So when the most grating of the bunch is found murdered in a staged position, it is somewhat difficult to be emotionally invested in the dearly departed. Still, Ceepak is tasked with the investigation.
Meanwhile, the ratings for “Fun House” skyrocket, as does the homicide rate when another victim’s body turns up along with a warning --- and a threat of more to come. Ceepak observes, questions, calculates and concludes, while refusing to let a tempting offer in a faraway land called “Ohio” distract him from the job at hand.
Boyle continues to grow into the job, though his attention span is not as long or deep as Ceepak’s. He finds himself on the wrong side of an unrequited love affair, and, as one might expect of a healthy twenty-something male at the beach, his eyes wander to the tanned fauna along the beach when he might be better served to focus on the job. But as FUN HOUSE demonstrates, Boyle has learned well from Ceepak over the course of the last several books and, by the end of the novel, demonstrates conclusively that he possesses the right stuff for the job.
Grabenstein balances action, humor and mystery in equal measure to create yet another fine beach read that evokes the scent of suntan lotion and the grim reality of what lays just a block or two beyond the vacation fun of the boardwalk. And the author is not averse to advancing his ongoing storyline with a change or two in the professional and personal lives of both Ceepak and Boyle. Fans of mysteries and police procedurals will find FUN HOUSE to be a fun ride, indeed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 8, 2012