Chris Grabenstein

grabenstein_chrisTo be able to write in explicit detail about a men’s room, I knew I would need reference material. Armed with my trusty Sony Sure Shot, I boldly ventured into the swarming throngs of males doing what men do best.

Guys will definitely stare at you if you happen to whip out your digital camera in the men’s room and start snapping pictures.

I know this because that’s what happened to me last summer while I was researching Hell Hole, the fourth book in my John Ceepak/Jersey Shore series. In Hell Hole, I present Ceepak and his partner Danny Boyle with what I call a “locked stall” mystery, which is very similar to a “locked door” mystery except the door, in this instance, is of the latched-shut toilet stall variety. And not just any toilet stall. I send Ceepak and Boyle into the most fertile forensic field imaginable: the men’s room of a Garden State Parkway rest stop.

I wanted to give the boys a challenge. Confront them with too many fingerprints plastered on the stainless steel doors, a billion grungy footprints on the tiled floor, not to mention fabric and hair samples everywhere. I don’t think all the CSI crews from all the CBS shows put together could find anything meaningful amidst all the daily debris deposited in a teeming men’s room.

Hell Hole is the name of an amusement park ride very similar to the more familiar Gravitron—the one where you spin around, get glued to the wall by centrifugal force, and then the floor falls out from under your feet. It became an apt metaphor for the scene of my crime: the stinking public facilities where an apparent suicide is found sitting on top of a commode behind that locked stall door.

To create the sense of verisimilitude needed to best tell my tale, one hot, steamy Saturday last summer I slipped into the men’s room at the Cheesequake Service Area near Exit 123 on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway.

Cheesequake, by the way, is named after the infamous Velveeta eruption that smothered most of southern New Jersey under a lava flow of molten nacho sauce early in the year 1643. Either that or a Lenape Indian word Cheseh-oh-ke, meaning “upland” or “upland village.” It all depends which Wikipedia entry you want to trust. Me? I’m sticking with the Velveeta theory I submitted.

But I digress.

To be able to write in explicit detail about a men’s room, I knew I would need reference material. Armed with my trusty Sony Sure Shot, I boldly ventured into the swarming throngs of males doing what men do best. Fortunately my camera is tiny. Not that size matters, especially in a men’s room.

Did you know there are vases of freshly cut carnations adorning the sinks inside the GSP men’s rooms? I had forgotten. Now it’s in the book. While snooping around, I also came upon this clipboard the company that manages the facility uses to monitor when the bathroom was last cleaned. The janitor on duty writes down their name and the time they serviced the rest room. You have a record of when custodians were in and out of the lavatory all day long. Oooh! Now there’s a clue one might use for a mystery.

grabenstein_hellholeI also discovered that men, despite our mothers' best efforts to train us properly, still do not flush. Guys, please. Don’t trust those electric eyes staring at you from behind the thrones. Sometimes they can’t tell if you stand up. Flush for yourself! I’m begging you. Don’t make me show you the pictures.

The more I hung around in the men’s room, the more I was convinced it was a perfect place to stage a murder. Literally thousands of people traipsed in and out all day every day, especially during the peak travel months of summer. Nobody paid much attention to anyone who wasn’t in their own immediate traveling party. I know this because nobody stopped to ask me why I was snapping photographs of stall doors, toilet paper roll holders, and those bizarre sanitary sheet dispensers offering up thin seat-shaped tissues that are supposed to protect us from—well, I never really figured that one out.

But, those odd sanitary seat covers became another fascinating clue to weave into my mystery.

Fortunately, the Larry Craig incident in the Minneapolis airport men’s room had not yet taken place when I was down the shore doing my research. Otherwise, upon completion of my peculiar project, I might’ve had to run for Congress.

Emboldened by my first foray into the forbidden land of urinals and commodes, I returned a few weeks later to the same rest stop, this time armed with my tiny video camera. I shot the footage I would later fashion into a trailer for the book. So, if all through elementary school, you wondered what the inside of the boys' room really looked like, check out the YouTube piece on my website.

Yes, there is nowhere an intrepid and dedicated mystery author will not go to capture the realism of his or her setting.

Even the place where other people, you know, “go.”

Hell Hole, Chris Grabenstein, St. Martin’s Minotaur, July 22, $24.95

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #106.