Friday, November 7, 2008

Whack-A-Mole - Chris Grabenstein

Whack-A-Mole is the third book in the John Ceepak/Danny Boyle mystery series. In this installment, Danny is now a full-time officer with the Sea Haven Police Department, so he's carrying a gun. But, fear not, he scored very well at the academy and knows how to handle himself with a firearm. This new accessory to his uniform comes in handy when John and Danny have to find the killer who has buried the heads of his victims on the beach. In the middle of winter, this might not have been such a problem, but in the middle of summer and in the midst of Sea Haven's first ever sand sculpting contest this discovery is far from "convenient."

With a plethora of possible suspects and a police chief who doesn't want to take the time to do the job right - just keep it low-key, Ceepak and Danny are once again challenged in their efforts to "save the day."

Each book in this series pulls me in and mesmerizes me. I am so fascinated with the development of all the characters in this series. But of course, Ceepak and Danny are the main focus. In each book John Ceepak has revealed a characteristic that makes me absolutely adore him more. In Tilt-A-Whirl, the first book, simply the fact that he was such a goody-goody drew me in. In Mad Mouse, John showed his interest in the environment. And now in Whack-a-Mole, we see his love for animals:

Two weeks ago we collared this dog. A stray. You might be surprised how many families come down the shore with their four-legged friends, decide they're sick and tired of scooping up poop, and set their beloved pets free.

Of course it's against the posted regulations and all sorts of municipal ordinances to have doggy scavengers running around loose on the beach, begging at every umbrella for Pringles or the last licks on a Fudgsicle. Eventually, somebody notices and calls the cops. With the help of a long, looped pole, we eventually nab the perp.

Ceepak, however, is the only cop who actually visits his prisoners at the South Shore Animal Shelter in Avondale. He even gave this one particular pooch a name: Barkley. He said it's a classic.

You can't help but admire a guy who respects animals like that.

And Danny is maturing in each novel, slowly, but still maturing. The admiration he shows for Ceepak is endearing. The relationship between the two is so multi-faceted. At some points it's very father-son in nature; at other times, it's buddy-buddy; and there are also times when it's definitely mentor-mentee. They learn from each other, and that seems to be what makes their relationship work. Danny has his roles and responsibilities and Ceepak has his.

One of Danny's roles in the novel (not necessarily in the relationship) is comic relief. His sarcastic humor is so much fun. Grabenstein is definitely making fun of the tackiness in a commercial "vacation spot," and that's light and fun, but the weight of the events transpiring in the tacky vacation spot is overwhelmingly heavy and daunting. Danny and Ceepak seem to reflect those two ends of the spectrum, and Danny is the light and fun end of the spectrum. I see this distinction in a comment Danny makes toward the end of the novel:

Chief, were you listening? I want to say. He spelled it out, right there in the middle of his THANK YOU card! He lives his life under the Son? Duh. Buy a vowel, big guy.

But I don't say any of this because I've become sort of accustomed to receiving a paycheck on a regular basis. Besides, Ceepak will say it better than I ever could. He knows how to remain professional in all circumstances. Even on the days when the boss forgets to pack his brains.

But, I also believe the two partners are, through the course of the series, walking toward the middle of that spectrum - not remaining on the ends. When this passage continues, Ceepak's reaction to the Chief is "'Sir - were you listening to what I just read?'" After which, he walks out on the Chief.

And if anyone reflects the tacky vacation spot itself, it would have be the Chief. It's all about the politics with him. That's his job and that adds dimension to the plot. As does Sergeant Santucci! Being a child of the 80s, I couldn't help but think of Rosco P. Coltraine as Santucci fired willy-nilly at Mama Shucker's restaurant.

With all this comedy, you might think that the plot would be basic, maybe even silly; however, you would be completely wrong in that thinking. Grabenstein's plots never fail to involve a complexity unlike any other. The dichotomy is undoubtedly what makes this series work so flawlessly. In Whack-a-Mole, Grabenstein tackles a very heavy subject: religious extremism. The significance of Ceepak's initials even come into play in this novel.

And for me, one of the most fascinating elements in each of Grabenstein's novels is the connection of the title to the plot. Whack-a-Mole is, of course, a carnival game and a game that is found in Sea Haven. But Whack-a-Mole is also symbolic when Ceepak and Boyle are digging holes across the beach that contain heads. And finally, Whack-a-Mole is significant in the search to find the killer. One suspect pops up and then disappears while another pops up somewhere else. The first suspect comes back again as a possibility and then goes away. Can the game ever be won? Will the mole ever be whacked?

So, all in all, you can read a Chris Grabenstein novel and enjoy just the surface of it. There are a lot of laughs and a great "who-dunnit" plot. But if you delve even deeper, you'll find your reading experience to be far more challenging and fulfilling.

**If you didn't have a chance to check out my interview with Chris Grabenstein, you can see it here. It's definitely one you don't want to miss!


beauvallet November 7, 2008 at 10:58 PM  

You're very persuasive, and I promise, I am going to read this series soon. Soon. Very soon.

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