Review: Tilt-a-Whirl, by Chris Grabenstein


Danny Boyle is a 24-year-old part-time cop in the summer resort town of Sea Haven. His partner is John Ceepak, a former military police officer just back from Iraq who is also new to the Sea Haven police department. This summer, though, things are heating up in the usually quiet tourist town: Reggie Hart, a multi-millionaire real estate developer, has been shot to death in front of his teenage daughter Ashley at the base of the tilt-a-whirl in Sea Haven’s run-down old amusement park.

Tilt-a-Whirl, by Chris Grabenstein, is the first in a series of mysteries set in Sea Haven and featuring Danny Boyle and John Ceepak. I first heard of the series at Beth Fish Reads back in June, and since then have gone on to read (or rather, listen to, in audio) all five books in the series, including the latest one, Mind Scrambler.

There were many reasons why I enjoyed Tilt-a-Whirl so much that I embarked on a reading blitz and polished off all the books in a two-month period. First, the town of Sea Haven is wonderfully depicted; it’s the summer resort town many of us have visited some time in our lives, so busy in the summer but as a tourist, you have your suspicions that it’s a relaxing place to be once all the vacationers are gone.

The story is narrated by Danny Boyle, and it’s lighthearted in nature; Boyle is a beach kid becoming an adult, and his narrative has a fresh, fun feel to it, along with a sincerity and honesty that’s very appealing.

And then there’s the mystery. Despite Boyle’s lighthearted narrative style, there’s far more to the mystery than meets the eye; ultimately, it’s a story that involves the dark side of human nature. It’s a combination that’s both unusual and very engrossing.

But most of all, I enjoyed Tilt-a-Whirl so much because I fell in love with the characters. Danny Boyle is just such a kid – he’s doing the part-time cop thing because he wants to earn extra money to have fun with his beach buddies. There’s something extremely endearing about his innocence; he’s like the kid brother I never had, and it was very enjoyable watching him grow into his position as a Sea Haven police officer, part-time or not.

And then there’s John Ceepak, fresh out of the military, with his stern code of honor – “I will not cheat, lie or steal, nor tolerate those who do”. When Boyle first introduced me to Ceepak, I wasn’t sure I’d like the guy. He seemed inflexible and rather humorless. But as the story developed, Boyle began to learn more about his new partner, and so did I – and I liked what I saw. John Ceepak is a Hero, with a capital “H” – in this day and age, he’s like a modern version of a knight of Camelot, living his life according to a code of chivalry.

In Tilt-a-Whirl, we come to learn there’s a lot more to John Ceepak than meets the eye. And we admire him because, despite all that he’s been through (and, as we discover, he’s been through a lot), he’s managed to still be who he is, someone honorable, likeable and, well, pure at heart.

Here’s a glimpse of how Danny Boyle feels about Ceepak at the beginning of the book:

Before the Army, Ceepak told me he studied criminology. Before that, he was an Eagle Scout. Before that? I’m not sure, but I’ll bet he was one helluva hall monitor in kindergarten. This is his first civilian cop job. He told the local newspaper, “he loves being on the job in Sea Haven” because he can “help visiting children safely enjoy wholesome family fun”.

Okay.  Fine.

Despite all of this, Boyle, and the reader, through Boyle’s eyes, gradually learns to really like and admire John Ceepak.

I listened to Tilt-a-Whirl in audio, and Jeff Woodman’s narration is excellent. He captures Danny Boyle’s youthful perspective perfectly, and his Ceepak never leaves you in doubt that it’s Ceepak talking. In his hands, the secondary characters also come to life; he does women’s voices so well you’re never thinking in the back of your mind, oh yes, that’s a man doing a woman’s voice.

If you’re interested in reading the John Ceepak mysteries, I highly recommend you start with Tilt-a-Whirl, and then read the books in sequence. It’s not that each book doesn’t work on its own, but earlier characters do show up in later books in a way that could ruin a bit of the mystery of the earlier books if you haven’t read them yet.

Where to buy Tilt-a-Whirl:

U.S. ( | Indiebound | Canada (Chapters) | UK (

Review copy details: published by Audible Inc., 2007, audiobook, 8 hours and 18 minutes in length

12 thoughts on “Review: Tilt-a-Whirl, by Chris Grabenstein

    1. Belle

      I was amazed, too, that I finished up the series so fast. And sad too – I wanted to read another right away!

    1. Belle

      Until I saw Beth F’s post, I hadn’t heard of it either! Today when I was writing up the review, I saw this in an About the Author section: “Chris Grabenstein was the first writer hired as a result of James Patterson’s famous advertising aptitude test that ran in the New York Times when Patterson was Creative Director of J. Walter Thompson. Now he is following in his mentor’s footsteps with his debut mystery novel. Chris spent several years at the nations top ad agencies. Before he started in advertising, Chris also worked with Bruce Willis (among others) in some of New York’s most acclaimed improvisational comedy troupes. A member of Mystery Writers of America, Chris lives in New York City.”

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