Review

Mind Scrambler: A John Ceepak Mystery

by Chris Grabenstein

Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak mysteries have been
popular from their inception. Set in a fictional but very realistic
vacation community of Sea Haven, New Jersey, Ceepak is the mentor
of series narrator Danny Boyle; the two are policemen, with the
less experienced Boyle partnered up with the veteran and strongly
upright Ceepak. Grabenstein manages to follow a general pattern
from book to book without becoming formulaic; the characters
change, seemingly in real time. Thus Ceepak, over the course of the
few years since the beginning of the series, has gotten married and
is raising a family, while Boyle has grown more seasoned and a bit
more sure of himself.

In keeping with this practice, Grabenstein, after four excellent
volumes set in Sea Haven, moves the setting of MIND SCRAMBLER, his
latest Ceepak novel, to Atlantic City. This is a brilliant
decision; one of the appealing aspects of New Jersey is how diverse
the northern, central and southern sections of the state remain
while sharing certain elements. So it is that the shift to Atlantic
City makes for a challenging, but not jarring, change of scenery
for the series. Atlantic City is a blend of the best and worst of
New Jersey, and just similar enough to Sea Haven that Ceepak and
Boyle are not fish out of water; rather, they are just swimming in
somewhat unfamiliar territory.

Ceepak and Boyle are in Atlantic City on business (partially set
up as the result of events occurring in HELL HOLE, the previous
volume in the series). While new to the city as a team, a number of
characters from previous books flit in and out of the narrative to
ease the transition. There is nothing easy, though, about the
presence of Katie, Boyle’s former crush, who makes an
all-too-brief appearance as the nanny for the children of Richard
Rock, an immensely popular casino illusionist. Boyle had carried a
torch for Katie, and there is still a bit of a flicker to it, as
evidenced by Boyle’s reaction when Katie makes arrangements
to meet with him after Rock’s performance one evening. But
Katie never makes it to the rendezvous; she is found brutally
murdered under scandalous circumstances. Grabenstein presents a
neat and clever variation of a locked room mystery here, though the
room isn’t so much locked as under surveillance, and the only
one seen entering it is Danny.

Things get sorted out in due time, but the issue of the identity
of Katie’s killer remains, and becomes even more important
when others associated with Rock’s performances turn up dead.
Ceepak is his usual steady self, providing a calming presence for
Boyle, who is understandably upset about Katie’s demise.
Ultimately, it is Boyle whose determination and developing powers
of observation win the day, setting up an increasingly important
role for him in future volumes.

As Grabenstein moves the series forward, Boyle can be seen
maturing personally and professionally. He is coming into his own
as a result, not quite losing his hero worship of Ceepak but
instead focusing more on learning from him as opposed to the
slack-jawed adoration of previous novels. But the most significant
aspect of the book is that Grabenstein demonstrates he is not above
removing sympathetic characters from the board (or the boardwalk,
as the case may be), adding an extra layer of suspense not only to
MIND SCRAMBLER but also to those installments of the series yet to
come.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 7, 2011

Mind Scrambler: A John Ceepak Mystery
by Chris Grabenstein

  • Publication Date: June 23, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Minotaur Books
  • ISBN-10: 0312382316
  • ISBN-13: 9780312382315