Sunday, December 28, 2008

MIND SCRAMBLER - Chris Grabenstein

Mind Scrambler is book number five in the John Ceepak mystery series. In this caper, Danny (the book's voice) and Ceepak are in Atlantic City deposing a witness set to testify against Ceepak's father. They are doing this deposition purely as a favor to the prosecutor over in Cuyahoga County, Ohio (hah! How about that?). While they are there, an old friend of Danny's shows up. She's working for Atlantic City's famous Richard Rock, an illusionist, and his wife, Jessica Rock, as their nanny.

Danny's friend calls him and tells him she needs to speak with him privately, but before Danny can connect with her, she's murdered. Danny and Ceepak are out-of-towners, but they aren't going to stand by and be wallflowers. They are still law enforcement agents in the state of New Jersey, so they'll pitch in and help bring the murderer to justice.

I honestly do not know how Chris Grabenstein manages to make every Ceepak book better than the one before it. I read every one thinking there is NO WAY it gets any better than THIS! And yet Grabenstein tops himself every time!

One of the many reasons I enjoy the John Ceepak mysteries so much is the connection of the title to the book. Part of the whole puzzle is making the connection with the plot. And the significance of Mind Scrambler is probably the greatest of them all. It ties directly into the illusions Richard Rock is performing on his show as well as the reality that is being manipulated in the murder investigation. And for Danny, he has a personal connection to Mind Scrambler as his personal reality is called into question when he finds his friend dead in a compromising position. As he explains:

I'm sitting on the cold floor in the cinder block hallway backstage, trying to make sense out of all that has happened today, thinking about this ride back home in Sea Haven called the mind scrambler...When the ride comes to a stop, you raise the safety bar and wobble out of your seat but the world keeps spinning round and round.

And as the reader, your head will be spinning round and round, much like Danny's does. You know when you watch an illusionist that there's a logical explanation for how the "magic tricks" work, but the dizziness comes from taxing your brain to try to figure out HOW they work. And of course, those who don't want to figure out how they work simply see what they want to see:

Misperception meets reality. More mirrors, only this time, they're angled upstairs in my brain, reflecting back what I wanted to see.

I was dizzy from all the spinning and smoke and mirrors and illusions Grabenstein created that challenged my brain in this plot. This is my kind of thrill ride!

Of course, Atlantic City is a new setting for the Ceepak/Boyle duo. But Grabenstein makes use of this new setting working in a number of pop culture references to Monopoly. Combine the references with Danny's sarcasm in the narration, and you have the recipe for Grabenstein's signature humor!

The Super 8 Motel is, of course, located back near the boardwalk, on Tennessee Avenue.

We need to move from the yellow properties all the way to the oranges...'Head up Atlantic,' says Sergeant Knauf. 'Take the right on Tennessee.' She doesn't add, 'Do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars.' Before we leave town, I want to check out the Mediterranean and Baltic. See if the rents really are that cheap.

The humor that Grabenstein employs in the Ceepak mysteries is yet another of the endearing qualities about these books for me. Novels can have a strong plot and good characters and still read very flat. But the humor in this series contributes to the inertia that drives these books up and down and around on the fun rides. It is the kind of humor that really catches you off guard and adds an extra thrill to the experience.

But of course, the ultimate reason I adore this series as much as I do is the dynamic duo. John Ceepak and Danny Boyle are among my absolute favorite characters in crime fiction. The symbiotic relationship between these two is what makes the series work so well. In every book they have progressively learned from each other, but in none as blatantly and strongly as in Mind Scrambler. It is a very effective use of characterization to view Ceepak through the eyes of Danny; Ceepak is, after all, his hero. So when Ceepak stumbles, the effect of seeing that mis-step through the eyes of Danny makes it all the more powerful.

When a crime fiction novel makes me laugh, tugs at my heart strings, moves me to cheer for the hero(s) and challenges me to THINK, I know I've found a top-notch work of art! Mind Scrambler is all those things and so much more.

Mind Scrambler will be released in June by St. Martin's Minotaur, but is available now to pre-order.


Kay January 3, 2009 at 9:55 AM  

Hi Jen. Haven't been around in a bit, but I am so glad to catch up with your blog and see your review of the new Chris Grabenstein book. I am SO, SO looking forward to a new Ceepak/Boyle book. Chris Grabenstein was my big find of 2008 and all 4 of his Ceepak/Boyle series made my top 10.

Thanks for the review and I look forward to being around more often!

Jen January 3, 2009 at 9:47 PM  

Hi Kay! So glad to hear from you. Hope you've been well. I know you'll love MIND SCRAMBLER as much as I did if Chris's other four books made your top 10. As I'm sure you saw, they made mine, too! Such a treasure to discover his work! One of the highlights of 2008 for me!

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