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chris grabenstein

Whack a Mole

John Ceepak Mystery #3

An innocent discovery on the beach in Sea Haven leads to a string of gruesome clues and one chilling conclusion: a long dormant serial killer is poised to strike again.

In another fast-paced thrill ride, Danny and Ceepak, the cop with a strict moral code, race against the clock to undercover a hidden mole with a twisted code all his own. If they don't catch the killer in time, someone they love may become the next victim.

Read the first two chapters!


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It's All Good Tank Top

Ceepak Shop

Carroll & Graf Hardcover, May 2007, ISBN: 978-0786718184

Sample the Sights and Sounds of Sea Haven!

Listen to a few snippets of the Bruce Springsteen songs mentioned in Whack A Mole. See some of the scenes "down the shore" recreated in the Ceepak stories...



"Grabenstein has done his homework. His portrait of summer on the Jersey shore, replete with tacky boardwalk arcades, kitschy souvenir and T-shirt shops, manic city folk who bring their attytood on vacation, and hordes of young people awash in hormones, is virtually note-perfect. Another winner in the Jersey Shore series."

"Whack A Mole is as engaging and enjoyable as the debut Tilt A Whirl. Certainly more fun when read as part of a series, this title nevertheless stands on its own as a well-written mystery, complete with humor, humanity, a fast-moving plot, and memorable characters. Highly recommended."
   —Library Journal

"Grabenstein has crafted a solid mystery here. The manner in which the killer taunts the police is very unique—I will never be able to walk into a resort town gift shop again without thinking of this book—and the identity of the murderer, while plausible, will keep you guessing. I was absolutely sure I had his identity pegged and nailed, but I was totally wrong. This series has already won an Anthony Award in the course of its short history; after reading Whack A Mole, it would seem that Grabenstein, who undoubtedly will receive additional accolades, may need to add a trophy room to his domicile if he has not done so already."
   —Joe Hartlaub, Bookreporter.com

"If Agatha Christie was around now, and lived in say, New Jersey, this is the kind of mystery she would weave... Despite all the clues, Grabenstein still managed to hang out enough red herrings to throw me off the track of the killer. Just like Christie, his writing is no frills, but there's enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, right to the end."
   —Cindy White, Calgary Herald

"Grabenstein's rapid-fire prose style, clipped dialogue, eye for precise detail, and heady pace generate an enjoyable suspense thriller. The cerebral, buttoned-down Ceepak plays well off the irrepressible, loyal Danny. Excerpts from nine Bruce Springsteen ballads stitched into the storyline add extra appeal for The Boss's fans. The Jersey Shore setting is picturesque and the likeable cop pals are developing into close-knit, effective crime fighters."
   —Mystery Scene magazine

"Whack A Mole is one of those mysteries that flows. The pace is unrelenting, and the characters come alive. The plot moves along while keeping the identity of the killer hidden until the final pages. Whack A Mole is a terrific read."
   —Steven Sill, I Love A Mystery

"When Kansas' BTK killer made contact with police after years of inactivity, his downfall followed quickly. Chris Grabenstein takes that premise and spins it forcefully in Whack A Mole, the third installment in his John Ceepak series set on the Jersey Shore. Not long after the story opens, policeman Ceepak—and Iraq war veteran who neither lies, cheats, nor steals, nor tolerates those who do—and his young police partner, Danny Boyle, begin to find body parts labeled by name and dating to the 1980s. But no murders had been reported. So what's going on?

The answers come as fast and twisty as one of Sea Haven's thrill rides, as Grabenstein continues to spin a rich story and to develop his main characters. Here's some perfect summer reading to take to the beach (or if you're heading north, to the shore)."
   —Jay Strafford, The Richmond Times-Dispatch's Book Bag

"Whack A Mole is filled with wonderful characters, is set in a great location, and has a first-rate murder mystery that grabs you, keeps you thinking and hits you with a surprise ending that will tear your heart out. It is a good standalone book, and fans of the series will not be disappointed. Whack A Mole is a fine read for any season."
   —Sharon Katz, Reviewing The Evidence

"Whack A Mole is a study in contrasts. The summer atmosphere of a beach resort with all the trappings, and a police chief who will do anything to maintain the charming atmosphere, is a stark contrast to the hunt for a serial killer who takes trophies, and John Ceepak, a police officer who won't even lie to a killer.... As always in the Ceepak mysteries, Grabenstein is able to provide humor and light touches in the midst of a dark, creepy story. He has provided the perfect voice in Danny Boyle, a young cop, trying to follow his mentor's ideals, but falling short. Boyle still sees the humor in situations, and is always surprised when Ceepak shows a trace of humor because Ceepak knows the dark side of life. Very few authors do creepy and funny in mysteries as well as Grabenstein."
   —Lesa Holstine, Lesa's Book Critiques

"The third John Ceepak mystery (following Tilt A Whirl and Mad Mouse) begins with a jolt: Ceepak's partner Danny Boyle, recently promoted to full-time cop in Sea Haven, New Jersey, says he's "done the worst thing any human being can possibly do."

Then things get nasty.

Ceepak, the straight-arrow cop with a penchant for Springsteen—as any good Jersey boy has—comes across a vintage high school graduation ring, and overgrown Boy Scout that he is, seeks out the owner to return it, a mere 24 years late. This leads to the investigation of a possible serial killer who might have terrorized the area in the 80's, and could very well be planning to strike again.

As the characters in his series progress, Grabenstein grows as an author, and he was very good to start—Tilt A Whirl won the Anthony Award and was nominated for others. He has a humorous touch, although the books are hardly comedies, and he never strikes a wrong character note.

Here, a killer who taunts the police with public displays of his handiwork (a severed ear here, a removed nose there) has an unknown motive and hasn't been active in over two decades, but he (or she) is just as menacing as a more contemporary villain.

As ever, Grabenstein gets the atmosphere right. He knows the area we Jerseyans call "down the shore" well, and he writes it as it is. And while Sea Haven may be the most snakebit town on the Atlantic coast, as people just keep getting killed there, it has a very strong series character in John Ceepak.

Danny, who narrates the story in first person (and present tense, for you fanatics), is growing as a character, as well. He is learning from Ceepak, growing up and taking things more seriously. His asides still lean toward the "party animal" attitude, but his actions belie that facade.

Whack A Mole is a great page-turner, with characters who go deeper than the pages on which they're printed. It's always good to hear from old friends, even if they have done the worst thing any human being can possibly do. They are good company."
   — Jeffrey Cohen, Mystery Morgue

"Chris Grabenstein's Whack A Mole is the best of the 104 books I've read so far this year. This book has everything: a great puzzle with several plausible suspects, a protagonist with a strong moral code who "won't lie cheat or steal and won't tolerate anybody who does," excellent pacing, witty word play, an interesting seashore setting, and a narrator, Danny Boyle, who is both wise and wisecracking. I raced through it in about 4 hours because I simply could not put it down. I highly recommend this book.

Don't the words..."soothing seashore sounds surround us..." make you hear the ocean? This is but one example of the beautifully crafted sentences in Whack A Mole by Chris Grabenstein. Danny Boyle, the 25 year old narrator of the story, has poetry in his heart even though he hides it from the world, and, sometimes himself. Springsteen songs help him express the emotions he feels uncomfortable acknowledging. As the soundtracks in his head play, he translates them into the music of his heart. Danny has two heroes: Bruce Springsteen and John Ceepak. He learns from both of them. While he is still young enough the want to party hearty with his friends on a nightly basis, he has gained maturity in this book and has learned to put work before play. Danny's take on life offers the middle-aged reader (like me) a unique perspective. I really like being in his head. In the first two books in this series, Tilt A Whirl and Mad Mouse, I thought Danny was a modern version of Archie Goodwin. He has that same surface brashness and dedication to a man he admires, but Archie is plopped on the canvas with a palette knife while Danny is meticulously painted with the finest sable brush. He has a conscience. He wants to do good. When he doesn't live up to the code Ceepak has set for himself, Danny feels uneasy. He hasn't yet learned that adulthood means setting his own code.

For example, Danny understands Ceepak's "Zen Zone." This is the place Ceepak goes when he relives his Iraq war experience. The Zen Zone is "where the complexities of a cruel universe get boiled down to a single simple question that somehow answers everything." Ceepak tells Danny about a soldier killed in Iraq who had no one to claim, bury, or mourn him. Ceepak says society considered this soldier "less dead." And therein lies the story. Young, sometimes promiscuous, runaway girls who were last seen in Sea Haven had been reported missing. These reports began over 25 years ago. The local police had made no real effort to find them. As their remains begin to surface, Danny realizes that the world sees these girls as "less dead." Ceepak sees his duty: find out what happened to these girls; find out if anyone is left to mourn them. Danny and Ceepak are hindered in their investigation by a police chief who doesn't want bad publicity and by a fellow cop who thinks his seniority ought to make him the head investigator on the case.

I like Ceepak very much. How can you not respect a man who knows how to investigate a crime scene, who knows when he may be out of his depth and wants to call in the state police and the FBI to help solve the case, who wants justice for these victims? He is a by-the-book type of guy, unless it goes against his strong moral sense. He identifies the problem and will go to great length to rectify it. Ceepak lightens up in this book in the series. He takes himself less seriously while still maintaining his dedication to the job. He actually smiles once in a while as he finally gets Danny's sense of humor. Ceepak's cargo pants remind me of a magician's hat or Mrs. Pollifax's purse. Among the things he pulls out of his pockets scotch tape, latex gloves, a magnifying glass, tweezers, Polaroid pictures, evidence bags, a Swiss army knife, and forceps. Must make quite a bulge! He's prepared for whatever life or death may bring. If I were in trouble, I would want Ceepak to cover my back.

The thing I liked best about this book is the humanizing of Ceepak and the maturing of Danny Boyle. I think this book is the best in a very fine series. My compliments to the author. This has become my favorite series. I can't wait to see what's in store for Danny and Ceepak. (Isn't it a tribute to the author's ability to define his characters that make me think of Danny by his first name and Ceepak by his last?) I highly recommend this book. If I had to limit myself to buying one book a year, it would definitely be the newest in this series.

Jan Watson, who needs a break from mysteries because anything else will pale in comparison to Whack A Mole for a while."
   —Jan Watson as posted on the DorothyL Listserv for Mystery Fans