Saving Room for Dessert

by K.C. Constantine

Published by The Mysterious Press

256 pages, 2002

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Murder à la Mode

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


Saving Room for Dessert is a godsend, the perfect opportunity for readers who've been waiting for a broadly accessible introduction to K.C. Constantine's respected but far-from-the-mainstream police procedurals, all of which are set in or around the post-industrially depressed town of Rocksburg, Pennsylvania.

Beginning with The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1972), Constantine has written 17 novels in two connected series. Most involve Rocksburg's canny police chief, Mario Balzic, and his hapless protégé, detective sergeant Ruggiero "Rugs" Carlucci. The stunning Blood Mud (1999) detailed the recently retired Balzic's intimations of mortality set against a backdrop of rape, suicide and police corruption. Grievance (2000), a less sweeping but equally absorbing book, centered on the struggles by Carlucci, who has taken over Balzic's responsibilities, to solve a complex murder while coming to grips with the mental illness of his elderly mother, the domineering force in his life. Family, neighborhood, community, and political and spiritual corruption -- as well as crime, love and food -- are the themes that run through Constantine's rich and passionate oeuvre.

Having followed the Rocksburg chronicles over the years, I'd pretty much figured that Constantine (the nom de plume used by former pro baseball player Carl Constantine Kosak), who must be in his 60s by now, would continue writing about Balzic, perhaps flashing back to the ex-chief's younger days in the department (much as Georges Simenon did in his later novels about retired Chief Inspector Jules Maigret).

Surprise, surprise. With Saving Room for Dessert, the author leaves Balzic and Carlucci on the sidelines as he deftly shifts not in time but in culture to focus on the travails of the Rocksburg police department's contemporary rank and file, and three patrolmen in particular.

William Rayford, the force's sole black patrolman, seethes with carefully hidden frustration. He's been repeatedly rejected for promotion by the town's racially prejudiced police advisory board, despite an outstanding record and beyond-extraordinary test scores. Robert Canoza, his burly colleague, can single-handedly clear a tavern of an infestation of bikers, but he's lost several rounds to whiney old ladies who find him insufficiently gracious when he is called to reunite them with the keys they've locked in their tiny Japanese cars. ("I pay your salary. Me and people like me. People living on fixed incomes. Which people like you working for the government wouldn't know anything about. All you know is how to spend our taxes," one such woman shrills at Canoza as he struggles to pop her door lock.) Meanwhile, patrolman James Reseta goes overboard to protect underdogs and punish bullies, with bizarre results. At one point, he finds himself engaged in surrealistic combat with a vicious middle-school bully he caught tormenting a schoolmate. Reseta is zealous about bringing this troublemaker to justice, but no one wants to help him lock the kid up; in fact, no one has any idea what the kid's name is. And the kid refuses to tell him.

Saving Room for Dessert opens with a cameo appearance by retired chief Balzic. He's encouraging Rayford, who is making yet another bid for promotion. Balzic thinks the patrolman will eventually overcome the police advisory board's prejudices and receive his due -- unless he allows himself to be tripped up by deceptively easy cases. Balzic explains:

"From my own experience I'm gonna tell you somethin'. The worst is domestics. Inside the residence? They're fire, man. You say the wrong thing, you may as well be spittin' gasoline. But the next worst -- and it's really gonna be tough for you if you don't think 'em out before you get outta the car. That's the one between the neighbors. T-D-K-P-S. Trees, dogs, kids, parkin' spaces, man I'm tellin' you, they're dynamite lookin' for a fuse. And when you show up? You? All these hunkies and dags, especially the old ones, what they're gonna see first, before they see the uniform, what they're gonna see is your skin. And if you don't come on super cool, calm, and collected, they're gonna turn on you, no matter what the beef was that prompted the call."

"Nobody's reaction time is as fast as somebody else's action time," Balzic summarizes. "Burn that into your brain."

As the wily old cop suspects, Rayford, Canoza and Reseta are lugging their own psychological gas cans around with them. It doesn't take long for this novel, as well as the disputatious working-class neighborhood the cops call "the United Nations," to ignite. A feud between two couples, started five years earlier when a joint dog-breeding venture soured, erupts at dusk one day. The melee, which begins with ethnic slurs and accusations of disruptive tree pruning and resultant roof damage, soon escalates to kicks, knifing, shooting and multiple arrests. Canoza is rushed to the hospital, having been stabbed in the neck with a rake. Rayford shoots a citizen in the knee. And Reseta slips in dog shit and winds up flat on his back. It's just another glorious night in the neighborhood -- until Rayford discovers that one of the squabbling neighbors is in the back seat of Canoza's cruiser, stone dead.

As in most of Constantine's books, the mystery of whodunit is secondary to the far more engrossing mysteries of how the cops are going to get out of the mess with their careers -- and their psyches -- intact. Reseta, haunted by a bitter childhood and Vietnam combat nightmares, is already in mandated counseling because of a police brutality complaint. Now that a neighborhood squabble has ended in a suspicious death, all three cops are in deep trouble.

Knife-wielding crazies are nothing to fear compared to the Rocksburg political machinery that goes into high gear in the name of justice. Threats of lawsuits abound, and the mayor forms an ad hoc committee (read: lynch mob) to investigate Rayford's shooting incident, appointing as chairwoman Mrs. Anne Mae Remaley, the archenemy of the county district attorney. Detective Sergeant Carlucci, saddled with the thankless task of investigating for Internal Affairs, has difficulty getting anything on tape that won't incriminate someone, including himself.

Readers of the previous Rocksburg books will be delighted to hear that Panagios Valcanas, the consummate defense attorney, is called in to represent Rayford in front of the ad hoc committee. The unflappable Valcanas reduces the big-mouthed, small-minded Mrs. Remaley to hysterics in a matter of minutes ("You're contemptible! You're in contempt of me!" she shrieks). While this political comedy runs its course, behind the scenes Rayford, Canoza and Reseta are having their own epiphanies. By the book's end, two of them will emerge rededicated to their law-enforcement careers. One will decide it's time to turn in his shield and move on.

Yes, Saving Room for Dessert is Constantine in top form: searingly realistic dialogue, characters at once heroic and vulnerable, and echoes of James Thurber, John Updike and William Gaddis in every chapter. It's faster, tighter and more accessible than the early books in the series. In short, it is an ideal introduction to this deceptively entertaining series chronicling life and work in small-town America at the turn of the millennium. | October 2002


Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.