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Crime In The City
1:01 am
Thu August 1, 2013

Bodies On The Boardwalk: Murder Stirs A Sleepy Jersey Shore

Originally published on Fri August 2, 2013 4:01 pm

When writer Chris Grabenstein plots his mysteries, the murders happen in the corny nooks of New Jersey's Jersey shore. After all, there's something delightfully cheesy about a beach town.

"I guess I'm a cheesy guy. I like this kind of stuff," Grabenstein says. "Ever since I was a kid I loved tourist towns."

The author points out shop names as we walk along his stretch of the shore. There's the Sunglass Menagerie, an ice cream shop called Do Me A Flavor, Shore Good Donuts and How You Brewin' coffee. I'll spare you the rest — Long Beach Island has 18 miles of this stuff.

At Fred's Beach Haven Diner (not a very exciting name — Grabenstein calls it Pancake Palace in his books) we take one of the turquoise blue booths by the window and order a local delicacy, the Taylor Pork Roll. (It's a lot like bologna.)

Detective Dudley Do-Right

Grabenstein is a New Yorker who just vacations here in Beach Haven. He says he didn't initially set out to mix work and pleasure:

"I actually came up with the title for the first book before anything else, which is Tilt-a-Whirl, because I'm a Bruce Springsteen nut and his song ['4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)'], where he sings about 'that tilt-a-whirl down on the south beach drag, I got on it [last night] and my shirt got caught' was just in my head and I thought 'tilt-a-whirl' would be a great name for a mystery. And I could do a whole series and each one would be named after an amusement park ride."

There's Mad Mouse, Whack A Mole, Rolling Thunder. Grabenstein changed the name of this little town to Sea Haven, but he still needed a detective.

"I wanted to do the opposite of all the heroes I loved in other murder mysteries," he says. "You know, the hard-boiled guy, he used to be a cop then his partner got shot. He always has like a bottle in his drawer. So I thought, what if I did the exact opposite and created almost an overgrown Eagle Boy Scout, a Dudley Do-Right, a guy who will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do."

The result is Detective John Ceepak, a former Army military police officer who took a cushy job as a beach cop to recover from serving in Iraq. And, well, you can guess that he never quite gets the chance to relax.

Ceepak is sitting in this very booth in Fred's Diner — or, Pancake Palace — in the first book, when he spots a young woman covered in blood stumbling from the amusement park just up the street.

A Dark Sense Of Humor

Our next stop is Fantasy Island, one of those tiny, blink-and-you-miss amusement parks scattered along Long Beach Island.

"They're terrific," Grabenstein says, "and there's almost every ride. Like that one over there will drop you down like a free fall. Over there we've got a tilt-a-whirl."

In Grabenstein's Tilt-a-Whirl, that stumbling young woman's father was found slumped in one of the ride's turtle-shaped cars. The author delights in finding innocuous places to shove a body.

"That is always one of the great joys, if you will, of writing a murder mystery, is coming up with an interesting place to drop the body," he says. "I had one take place on a roller coaster in the middle of a ride and that was a lot of fun to think about."

Grabenstein's mysteries — all eight of them so far — have a dark sense of humor. In his most gruesome book, Whack A Mole, a serial killer buries human heads out on the beach just a couple of blocks from here.

The body parts are discovered during a sand castle competition, pretty much right below where George and Maddy Fantry are sprawled out on the sand. The Fantrys live across the bay and they only remember one real murder in the past couple of years.

"We've been here a long time," Maddy says.

"People are on vacation and everyone's happy when they are on vacation, you know, they leave their attitudes at home," George says.

Grabenstein plays with that stereotype by punctuating the calm, sleepy setting with the occasional serial killer. He couldn't predict when he started writing that reality would get even crazier. Two disasters were about to hit the shore: Superstorm Sandy and Snooki, one of the cast members of the MTV reality show Jersey Shore. The show hit the beach like a tsunami and Grabenstein couldn't ignore it, so he wrote it into his seventh Ceepak mystery, Fun House.

He takes me to 1209 Ocean Terrace, the notorious Seaside Heights home of the Jersey Shore gang. This is where they filmed the reality show, and when we arrive we find that even though the show is off the air, people still line up to tour the house.

In Fun House, Grabenstein pits Ceepak against a rowdy group of drunks in a similar reality show. ("They just rub him the wrong way," the author says.) The show's producers figure out that the more trouble the cast gets into, the higher the ratings, which is true in real life too. But in the book, the high jinks escalate to murder.

A Different Kind Of 'Carcass'

Grabenstein takes me to the last icon from his books, or at least where the icon used to be. We pass the corn dog stand, the paintball parlor, and come to a big gap covered by a chain-link fence.

"At the end of that pier over there was a roller coaster which was like a mad mouse or a wild mouse, depending on where you grew up. A tight-turn roller coaster," Grabenstein says. "And this one was cool because it took you out — you were out over the ocean."

It was the inspiration for his second mystery, Mad Mouse.

After Superstorm Sandy hit, Grabenstein saw his beloved coaster on the front page of The New York Times. The pier was destroyed. And his mad mouse?

"It was this tangled wreckage," he says. "Almost like a carcass out in the middle of the ocean. It was pretty horrible."

On this sunny, summer day, the pier is a construction site, but a few rides are up and running.

The rest of the boardwalk is up and running. Maybe not crowded, but surviving. They sell little bits of the storm-damaged wood in the souvenir shops.

Grabenstein says it's made him rethink some things in his books. Readers want to come back to the same place over and over again, just like tourists.

"I think the attraction of shore towns is that everything is the same," he says. "You know, the rides are there that you remember as a kid, and you grow up and you bring your kids. And I think that was what was so devastating about Sandy — it wiped out all those memories and that sense of permanence. This whole thing is built on sand and there can't be anything permanent about a shore town."

His latest book, Free Fall, was at the publisher when Sandy hit, so he was only able to slip in a few lines about the storm. His narrator says that John Ceepak pulled the town through Sandy, and promised to tell that story in the next book.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Once again MORNING EDITION is bringing you Crime in the City. This is our summertime series about fictional detectives and the places they live. Today's destination is perfect for anyone on vacation or dreaming of going on one - the Jersey Shore - bring your sunscreen.

NPR's Robert Smith introduces us to a man who writes gripping beach reads about the actual beach.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCEAN WAVES)

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: There is something delightfully cheesy about a beach town.

CHRIS GRABENSTEIN: I guess I'm a cheesy guy. I like this kind of stuff. Ever since I was a kid, I loved tourist towns.

SMITH: And so when Chris Grabenstein plots his murders, they happen in the kind of corny places you would expect to see out here at the Jersey Shore.

GRABENSTEIN: The Sunglass Menagerie. The Sunglass Menagerie....

(LAUGHTER)

GRABENSTEIN: Tennessee Williams would love that.

SMITH: There's and ice cream shop, Do Me a Flavor, Shore Enough Donuts, How You Brewin'?

GRABENSTEIN: You got to have donuts and coffee, right?

SMITH: I will spare you the rest of the puns. This part of the shore, Long Beach Island, has 18 miles of this stuff.

GRABENSTEIN: And this is Fred's Diner.

SMITH: Which isn't very exciting a name.

GRABENSTEIN: No, I changed it to the Pancake Palace.

SMITH: The pancake palace, let's go.

We take one of the turquoise blue booths by the window, a favorite of his characters, and we order the local delicacy: Eggs and Taylor Pork Roll - it's kind of like bologna.

GRABENSTEIN: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You're welcome.

SMITH: Grabenstein is a New Yorker. He just vacations out here in Beach Haven. And he didn't set out to mix work and pleasure.

GRABENSTEIN: I actually came up with the title for the first book before anything else, which is "Tilt-a-Whirl" 'cause I'm a Bruce Springsteen nut. And his song "Sandy/Fourth of July," where he sings about that Tilt-a-Whirl down on the south beach drag - I got on it and my shirt got caught - was just in my head. And I said Tilt-a-Whirl would be a great name for a mystery. And I could do a whole series. Each one would be named after an amusement park ride.

SMITH: Like "Mad Mouse," "Whack A Mole," "Rolling Thunder." Grabenstein changed the name of this little town here to Sea Haven but he still needed a detective.

GRABENSTEIN: I wanted to do the opposite of all the heroes I loved in other murder mysteries. You know, the hard-boiled guy who used to be a cop. And then his partner got shot and he drinks too much. He's down in the dumps and always has like a bottle in his drawer.

So I thought what if I did the exact opposite and create almost an overgrown Eagle Boy Scout, a Dudley Do-Right, a guy who will not lie, cheat or steal nor tolerate those who do.

SMITH: He's describing Detective John Ceepak, former Army MP took a cushy job as a beach cop to recover from serving in Iraq. And, well, you can guess that he never quite gets the chance to relax. He was sitting in this very booth, in the first book, when he spotted a young woman covered in blood stumbling from the amusement park just up the street.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: It's our next stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMUSEMENT PARK MUSIC)

GRABENSTEIN: Well, this is Fantasy Island.

SMITH: And this I one of those tiny blink-you-miss-them amusement parks tucked all around this island.

GRABENSTEIN: Yeah, and they're terrific. And there's almost every ride, like that one over there will drop you down like a free fall. Over there, we've got a Tilt-a-Whirl.

SMITH: Ah, that's where the young woman's father was found slumped over, dead, in one of the turtle-shaped cars on the ride.

Do you delight in finding the most innocuous places, in order to shove a body?

GRABENSTEIN: Yes, that's always one of the great joys, if you will, of writing a murder mystery is coming up with an interesting place to sort of drop the body, and to have the murder happen. I had one take place actually on a roller coaster in the middle of a ride. And that was a lot of fun to think about.

SMITH: Grabenstein's mysteries, all eight of them so far, have a pretty dark sense of humor. In his most gruesome book, "Whack A Mole," a serial killer is burying human heads out on the beach, just a couple of blocks from here. The body parts are discovered during a sand castle competition.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCEAN WAVES)

SMITH: Pretty much right below where this couple is sprawled out 55 the sand.

MADDY FANTRY: Is that for real?

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: You would know if it was for real, right?

FANTRY: Sure, we would know. We've been here a long time.

SMITH: George and Maddy Fantry live over across the bay. And they only remember one real murder in the last couple of years.

GEORGE FANTRY: People are on vacation and everybody is happy when they are on vacation. You know, it's like they leave their attitudes at home...

(LAUGHTER)

FANTRY: ...come down, happy-happy.

SMITH: Grabenstein wanted to play with this stereotype, take a calm, sleepy place and introduce the occasional serial killer. He couldn't predict when he started writing that reality would shake things up get even more. Two disasters were about to hit the shore, Hurricane Sandy, of course - we'll get to that. But first, another force of nature invaded.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE JERSEY SHORE")

ANGELINA: Did you hook up with him tonight? Probably.

SNOOKIE: Angelina, this is why nobody likes you because shut the (bleep) up.

ANGELINA: No, don't tell me to shut the (bleep) up.

SNOOKIE: Seriously, every...

SMITH: Snooki, one of the cast members of the MTV reality show "Jersey Shore." These kids hit the beach like a tsunami. Grabenstein could not ignore it. So he wrote it into his book "Fun House."

GRABENSTEIN: We're at 1209 Ocean Terrace, the notorious home of the "Jersey Shore" gang. This is where they actually filmed the whole reality show.

SMITH: It's is in Seaside Heights. And when we arrive, we find that even though the show is off the air people still line up to tour the house.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah, I'm dying to see where it all went down. I want to see the kitchen. I want to take pictures with the duck phone. It's all about the duck phone and I want to see where Sammy and Ronny duked it out.

SMITH: In the book, "Fun House," Grabenstein pits his Dudley Do-Right, Officer John Ceepak against a rowdy group of drunks who are starring in a similar reality show.

GRABENSTEIN: They just rub him the wrong way

SMITH: In the book, the show's producers figure that the more trouble the cast gets into, the higher the ratings, which is true in real life too. But in the book, the hi-jinx escalate to murder.

Since we're next to the boardwalk, Grabenstein wants me to see one last icon from his books. Or at least where the icon used to be. We pass the corndog stand, the paintball parlor. And we come to a big gap covered by a chain link fence.

GRABENSTEIN: So at the end of that pier, over there was a roller coaster that was like a wild mouse or a mad mouse, depending on where you grew up; tight turn roller coaster. And this one was cool 'cause it took you out - you were out over the ocean.

SMITH: It was the inspiration for his second mystery, "Mad Mouse." After Hurricane Sandy hit, Grabenstein saw his beloved coaster on the cover The New York Times. The pier was destroyed. And his mad mouse...

GRABENSTEIN: It was this tangled wreckage, almost like a carcass, out in the middle of the ocean. It was pretty horrible.

SMITH: Now, eight months later the shore is showing some signs of progress. A few of the rides have come back. The rest of the boardwalk is up and running. They even sell little bits of the hurricane-damaged wood in the souvenir shops. And Grabenstein says it's made him rethink some things in his books. Mystery readers, they want to come back to the same place over and over again - just like tourists.

GRABENSTEIN: I think the attraction of shore towns are that everything is the same. You know the rides are there that you remember as a kid. And you grow up and you bring your kids. I mean that's I think that was what was so devastating about Sandy, it wiped out, like all those memories and that sense of permanence.

This whole thing is built on sand and there can't be anything permanent about a shore town.

SMITH: Grabenstein's latest book was at the publishers when Sandy hit, so he was only able to slip in a few lines about the storm. His narrator says that John Ceepak pulled the town through Sandy, and promised to tell that story in the next book.

Robert Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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