Chris Grabenstein: Forensics, Fire, and Wall Bangers

Chris Grabenstein


Chris Grabenstein did improvisational comedy (with Bruce Willis) in New York before James Patterson hired him at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency.

His Anthony Award-winning debut TILT A WHIRL (A John Ceepak mystery) was followed by MAD MOUSE, WHACK A MOLE and the just released HELL HOLE from St. Martin’s Minotaur.

Chris has also written two thrillers: SLAY RIDE and HELL FOR THE HOLIDAYS.

His “rip-roaring” Middle Grades ghost story THE CROSSROADS was published my Random House earlier this summer.

Fire Forensics

“Suppose I wanted to set a fire that would kill somebody trapped inside an abandoned amusement park ride,” I asked the fire captain. “What’d be the best way to do that?”

Chris and FDNY Captain Dave Morkal

Fortunately, the captain I was asking was Dave Morkal of the FDNY, one of my closest friends and a big inspiration for the character of John Ceepak. He was also my “fire forensics” technical adviser on HELL HOLE, my newest John Ceepak mystery.


When I was working on HELL HOLE, the fourth novel in the series, which was just published by St. Martin’s Minotaur, I thought it would be exciting to include a dramatic fire rescue scene.

When my wife and I do research (a.k.a “go on vacation”) down the Jersey Shore, we often spend time with Captain Morkal and his family. That means we also get to meet some of the other firefighters taking the same vacation weeks in the town of Beach Haven on New Jersey’s Long Beach Island or, as everybody calls it, LBI. (Yes, Beach Haven is the main inspiration for my fictional Sea Haven).

As it turns out, hundreds of New York firefighters head to LBI for a couple weeks every summer.

Good thing, too!

Danny and Ceepak need them.

In HELL HOLE, some extremely nasty characters want to “eliminate” my dynamic duo from their investigation of what everyone else assumes was a open and shut case of suicide. Ceepak and Danny beg to differ. They think it was murder.

In our discussions of arson, Captain Morkal told me about a very deadly trick: Firebugs ignite a roaring blaze high up in a structure with gasoline while simultaneously igniting a diesel fuel fire down below. The gas fire burns fast and gets everybody’s attention. The diesel starts slower but burns hotter. The fire department rushes in to extinguish the gas fire, the one everybody can see. While they’re upstairs fighting that fire, the diesel-fueled blaze down below kicks in and cuts off their exit, trapping the guys up high with no way out or back down.

So that’s what I had my bad guys did.

Fortunately, Captain Morkal also told me how skilled firefighters would attack the fire and how they would make sure they and those they rescued were able to get back out.

In the book, John Ceepak goes into the abandoned ride known as the Hell Hole when he hears a woman screaming for help and shouting “Fire!”

(The Hell Hole, by the way, is a ride very similar to the Rotor or Gravitron where the room spins around and around until centrifugal force glues you to the wall like a sock in the spin cycle. Then they drop the floor out from under your feet.)

Ceepak sends Danny off to call 9-1-1 because their cell phones were destroyed earlier in the day.

Fortunately, on his way to find a pay phone on the boardwalk, Danny encounters three vacationing members of the FDNY who immediately spring into action and improvise an ingenious firefighting solution.

Thanks to Captain Morkal’s expert advice on how to stage the rescue, the scene crackles with excitement.

I find talking with experts and learning how they really do their job to be one of the most fascinating and fun aspects of being an author. It also helps you get things right. And when you do that, the reader can truly get lost in your world.

If you don’t get the details right, you might frustrate your readers and have a wall banger on your hands.

What’s a wall banger?

That’s a book that gets thrown against the wall.


Please take a moment to visit Chris at

7 replies
  1. cgrabber1955
    cgrabber1955 says:

    Hi Ramona! Thanks for writing. Funny, the Chester County folks almost cancelled my appearance today…but we straightened things out. It’s all good! It was a little longer between books this year. The new publisher wanted to go with July/August. Usually they come out in May/June…except TILT A WHIRL which came out in September — the day before my birthday!

  2. ramona
    ramona says:

    Hi Chris! I was going to complain about the long drought between Ceepak books, but then I remembered that he’s been on his honeymoon all this time, so I won’t.

    Looking forward to having you sign my collection of Ceepak & Danny books at Chester County Books in a couple of weeks.

  3. cgrabber1955
    cgrabber1955 says:

    Hi! Just flew in from West Palm Beach…and boy are my arms tired. Sorry. One of the fun things about doing the Ceepak books is doing the Ride Research. I went to Wildwood, New Jersey two summers ago to ride the Gravitron and take notes. If you haven’t been to Wildwood, I highly recommend it. Cool Doo-Wop architecture and this tram that makes an annoying “Step Away From The Moving Tram” announcement over and over and over!

  4. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Chris is on the road today (you know how it is with those big-time authors), but he’ll be checking in periodically to answer questions.

    Bill – Only you…

  5. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    Hi Chris! I’m sure you don’t remember me, but we met at the Festival of Mystery in Pittsburgh a couple of years ago. I’m sure you remember the goodie bags from our SinC group, though. Becky Mertz (Rebecca Drake) and I packed them all and passed them out to all the authors.

    Anyway, I love your books and can’t wait to read the new one.

    Bill, that’s not one of my favorite rides, either. I’ll go on any roller coaster, the higher the better, but I don’t like spinny-things.

  6. Bill Cameron
    Bill Cameron says:

    Non sequitur alert.

    I was once riding the Rotor-equivalent at King’s Island, maybe 1978 or ’79, when a woman directly across from got that look on her face. If you don’t know the look I mean, consider yourself lucky. Let’s just say I could tell something was seriously wrong.

    After some wriggling and writhing as we spun around suspended against the wall, she abruptly projectile vomited straight toward me. For my part, it was thank god for centrifugal force, because the vomit extended out only about three feet from her horrified face and seemed to hover in space for a long moment (or maybe it was the distorted time sense we get when we witness a tragedy in action) then splashed in a widening fan across the half dozen or so people to her left — opposite the direction of the spin.

    Screams and additional gastroenterological release ensued, though I was lucky enough to avoid any blowback. I did decide I never needed to ride the Rotor ever again. Ever.

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