Saturday, May 24, 2008

WHACK A MOLE by Chris Grabenstein

The Book: Chris Grabenstein, WHACK A MOLE. Carroll & Graf, 2007 (signed first edition). Fine condition.
First read: 2007
Owned since: 2007

It's a holiday weekend, the beginning of summer, and the week ahead will be "books to read on vacation." In many ways, my whole life is one long vacation; in other ways, I never get a real day off. I've been juggling a few too many things this week, and meant to spent today catching up, but instead took a long walk followed by a long nap. No holiday for me on Monday...

Anyway, this book is the most recent in one of my favorite series. Officer John Ceepak is an Iraq veteran who returns to civilian life with the police force of Sea Haven, New Jersey. As seen by his (very junior) partner, Danny Boyle, he's larger than life: an old-fashioned hero who does not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do. Boyle narrates these books, in the time-honored tradition of Sherlock Holmes's Watson, Poirot's Hastings and Nero Wolfe's Archie Goodwin.

WHACK A MOLE starts with Ceepak's discovery of a ring that belonged to a young woman who had disappeared many years before -- which leads to the discovery that, unbeknownst to anyone, a serial killer has been stalking Sea Haven for decades.

The books in this series are deceptively straightforward, but brilliant on so many levels. Each one bears the title of a carnival ride, and Grabenstein's voice, as Danny the narrator, is perfect: a little naive, a little wiseass, fundamentally kind and respectful, growing older and wiser with each book. Danny stands in for us, the reader, and never allows the crimes to be trivialized.

Having grown up in Virginia Beach myself, I especially appreciate the powerful metaphor of setting these books in a fictional resort town: most people might just visit on vacation, but some of us live there -- and it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

I've always lived in places that were tourist attractions -- Virginia Beach, Washington, Los Angeles, and now an entire state that calls itself "Vacationland." People come and go, and aren't always respectful of the places they visit. Locals resent tourists for a reason, even though tourists make it possible for locals to live in these places year-round. Grabenstein captures that perfectly, too, but never takes the easy way out by pinning all unpleasantness on the people from away.

Tomorrow I'm going out to Peaks Island for the day, and will be a tourist myself. I promise to be careful and polite.

What I Read This Week

I'm in full-on Editor Mode this week, and it's hard for me to read anything because I can't turn off the blue pencil in my head. Neither of these books needed any help from me.

Robert Crais, CHASING DARKNESS. An advance copy of the next Elvis Cole novel, due out in July; put this one on your summer reading list. Elvis learns that a man he helped clear of murder charges has been discovered dead, with a photo album of half-a-dozen murder victims on his lap. The last two victims were killed after Elvis produced evidence to clear him; did Elvis make a mistake that cost two women their lives? The plot twists ingeniously, speeding toward a shocking conclusion.

Tana French, THE LIKENESS. Since I read her first novel (Edgar winner IN THE WOODS) so recently, it startled me that French's second novel should follow so soon, or be so ambitious. Cassie Maddox, the partner of the main character of IN THE WOODS, agrees to go undercover to investigate the murder of a young woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to her. Even stranger, the victim had stolen the identity of an undercover alias Cassie had used years before. The prime suspects are the victim's housemates, graduate students who have formed a tightly-knit surrogate family; Cassie not only convinces them of her new identity, but begins to embrace it herself. Deeply emotional, harrowing and sad, THE LIKENESS begs comparison with Donna Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY and Kevin Wignall's AMONG THE DEAD, but establishes French firmly as a serious writer doing lasting work.

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