FREE FALL is the eighth title in Chris Grabenstein’s series of John Creepak mysteries. Like its forerunners, this newest entry not only takes its title from an amusement park ride and its setting on the New Jersey Shore, but also skillfully uses humor to portray an otherwise serious story.
Danny Boyle, police detective in the fictional town of Sea Haven on the Jersey Shore, is called to a domestic assault at a house in the swankier part of town. He arrives just in time to break up what looks like an attack on Christine Lemonopolus, a former girlfriend who works as a home-care nurse, and the woman who owns the house and is the mother of Christine’s wheelchair-bound patient.
Boyle and John Ceepak, now Chief of Detectives, help clear Christine from the assault charges. But not long afterwards, Boyle and Ceepak discover that another of Christine’s patients, an elderly local dentist, has suddenly died. Digging a little deeper, the detectives also learn that the dentist is not the first of Christine’s aging patients to die under her care, nor the first to generously remember Christine in their will. Boyle and Ceepak wonder if they had helped a friend get away with murder.
Just as the two detectives investigate the death of Christine’s patient, things get more complicated when Ceepak finds that his father, an abusive alcoholic, is back in town and hoping to claim what he says is his share of the multi-million dollar inheritance of his ex-wife, Ceepak’s mother.
The sharp characteristic contrast between the two lead detectives and protagonists remains one of the main attractions of this series. Ceepak, a former Eagle Scout and officer in the Military Police, is disciplined and conservative in both his dress and manner; while Boyle is the exact opposite. So while Ceepak always appears wearing pressed slacks, a button-down shirt and a sports jacket; Boyle wears mostly shorts and t-shirts. And while Ceepak lives by an unshakable code of honor, Boyle lives by whatever is happening at the moment.
Yet as different as the two lead players are, there is a deep, mutual admiration and respect between them. Boyle seems happiest when partnered with Ceepak, and for all his straight-arrow mannerism Ceepak is never overbearing or obnoxious.
This is due, in no small part, to Grabenstein’s deft use of humor. It’s most evident in how Boyle, in his first-person narration, expresses Ceepak’s often predicable, by-the-book but never less than effective behavior – and how grateful he is whenever Ceepak makes them both look good at their job.
The humor is also unmistakable in Boyle’s easy-going narration. His comical observations and insights – on both himself as well as his beloved Jersey Shore home town — are never forced or overstated. Humor also guides us through the darker and more distressing moments of what quickly becomes a complicated story of family jealousies, envy, and unvarnished greed as Boyle and Ceepak assemble the suspects in the death of the elderly dentist, and Ceepak protects his mother from the not-so-veiled threats of his violent father.
FREE FALL is the perfect book to pack for a summer vacation or any other time when a lighter (but surprisingly substantial) crime story is desired. It’s also a great introduction to the John Ceepak series. Before you know it, you’ll want to spend more time with Boyle and Ceepak as they cleverly expose the criminal side of the Jersey Shore. —Alan Cranis