I am going to wade out into the surf a bit and put forth the proposition that the John Ceepak mystery series constitutes the ultimate beach book canon. The novels, which are in the fictional but all-too-real Jersey Shore resort town of Sea Haven, are an annually published “must-read” for anyone who has ever pulled up residential stakes for a week or so and headed to the east coast for a family vacation or hedonistic summer break. The “John Ceepak” of the series is a straight-arrow, squared-away Sea Haven policeman whose life is chronicled in a first-person present tense narrative by a younger officer named Danny Boyle, who, with varying degrees of success, seeks to emulate his older mentor; he easily could do worse, and probably could do no better.
"Grabenstein continues to find new variations on a continuing theme as fodder for one of the more entertaining series in mystery fiction. The pacing is relaxed, as would befit a novel set at a resort town."
While the series is told in sequence, author Chris Grabenstein does yeoman’s work of making each book immediately welcome and accessible to newcomers. There is not a whole lot to the backstory, and when some information is necessary to understand a particular plot point, Grabenstein is a marvel at dropping what one needs to know into the narrative to aid the previously uninformed as to what has gone before and how it affects the present. FREE FALL, the latest book in the series, proceeds along a couple of unrelated plot tracks that gradually converge (it is a small town, after all) as the tale reaches its conclusion.
The story begins when Ceepak and Boyle are dispatched to break up a brawl that involves a wealthy Sea Haven resident and, as it happens, a friend of Boyle’s. Christine Lemonopolous is a home health care nurse who is ultimately accused of assault in the incident, even though it appears to Ceepak and Boyle that she is more sinned against than sinner, so to speak. Boyle is certain that Christine is telling the truth, and he and Ceepak offer some covert assistance in seeing that she is acquitted of the charges. With that barely behind her, however, one of her home health care patients dies suddenly. The 94-year-old was, all other things considered, in good health and mentally sharp. But when the spectre of foul play arises, it appears that Boyle’s instincts about Christine may have been wrong.
Meanwhile, Ceepak’s world is rocked when his estranged father returns to Sea Haven, ostensibly as a changed man who has found religion and turned from his former evil ways. Sober, gainfully employed, and apparently morally straight, Joe “Six Pack” Boyle wants to re-establish contact with his son and his ex-wife. Ceepak, however, is immediately distrustful of his father, who he feels is more motivated by his mother’s recent financial windfall than by any sudden impulse to repent his past. When the respective truths concerning both Christine and Joe are ultimately revealed, surprises abound that will affect future installments of the series, at least in the short term.
Grabenstein continues to find new variations on a continuing theme as fodder for one of the more entertaining series in mystery fiction. The pacing is relaxed, as would befit a novel set at a resort town. Boyle’s first-person narrative doesn’t strike one as being in any particular hurry to get anywhere, yet the pages just fly by. It is helped by occasional action in fits and starts and vignettes that illustrate the local color with descriptions of the scenery and cuisine, spoiled only by the baser elements of human nature. When you head out this summer, bring FREE FALL and its predecessors along with you.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 17, 2013