by K. C. Constantine
Published by The Mysterious Press
375 pages, 1999
Crimes of the Heart
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
Describing K.C. Constantine's novels as mysteries featuring a wily small-town police chief is like saying that John Updike's "Rabbit" novels are racy stories about an immature used-car salesman. It misses the point.
Constantine's tales, set in Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, belong to the stream of 20th-century American fiction that has its headwaters in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and Thornton Wilder's Our Town and flows on through the works of William Faulkner, John Cheever, and Updike. While most contemporary fiction is preoccupied with either the tension between an individual and some aspect of society or the internecine workings of dysfunctional families, this other, distinctive school of writing explores the idea of community in America. Constantine is one of the last writers whose narrative lantern still flickers from house to house, illuminating scenes that range from the tender to the fierce.
Like Constantine's 14 earlier books, his latest, Blood Mud, begins with a crime: a gun dealer in the neighboring town of Knox has reported a burglary. He claims a volume of losses that raises eyebrows at his insurance company. Retired police chief Mario Balzic, now a freelance private investigator, is hired to check it out. He soon becomes as concerned about where the high-powered weaponry may be headed as the insurance company is about how it disappeared.
And, as Constantine's long-time readers have come to expect, this book spends considerable time exploring crimes that will never be solved: what age is doing to Balzic; what political corruption is doing to the young police officers who have taken his place; what pretending to be a good Catholic has done to Balzic's wife, Ruth; and what the failure of the mining/industrial economy has done to the immigrants in Central Pennsylvania. The tough decisions about life, death, and justice that Balzic has made throughout his career, the gut-wrenching compromises, have made Constantine's novels fascinating. In Blood Mud, when Balzic has a heart attack, these decisions and compromises come back to haunt him and Ruth:
She put her hands around his neck and looked at him. "Mar, you're not -- how do I wanna say this? You're not as bad as you think you are, but, uh, oh my. How do I say this? You're not as good as you hoped you were gonna be, that's all. You're just not. But nobody is. Does that make any sense?"
Blood Mud is rich with the dialogue and dialect and edibles for which Constantine's books have long been celebrated. In setting up this complex story, Constantine has also wired it with some of his most haunting characters. He gives us the corrupt, womanizing city councilman who is lulled into complacency by the local mob boss' legendary potato salad; the chatty young cardiologist who operates on Balzic to clear out the arterial sludge he breezily terms "blood mud"; and Balzic's loving daughter Marie, who exhausts her dad with phone calls in which she rattles on breathlessly about the health benefits of the Dean Ornish diet and meditation:
"You learn how to meditate to learn how to focus, Daddy, to give your mind a rest, to try to reduce the stress your mind puts on your body by thinking all these useless thoughts -- "
Balzic's quest for the real story behind the shady gunshop insurance claim is no simpler than his quest for answers to his questions about mortality and the meaning of his life. In fact, the two quests become intertwined. The Knox police, in whose jurisdiction the insurance scam occurred, seem oddly uninterested in investigating it. Balzic, infuriated, begins riding young Detective George Sporcik (a cop whose gutsy attitude will seem keenly familiar to readers who followed Balzic's own career), slamming him for pursuing a high-profile rape case while ignoring the suspicious jailhouse "suicide" of an informant in the gun-theft investigation. When the rape case is solved, Sporcik seeks out the retired chief at Balzic's favorite hangout, Muscotti's Bar, for a taunting "celebration" of his -- and Balzic's -- professional accomplishments. Says Sporcik:
"We're a fuckin' joke."
The voices and the stories in Blood Mud are the voices from the supermarket, the tavern, the squad car, the town council office, and the kitchen -- the voices of everyday people assigning meaning to what they see, hear, and feel going on around them. We listen as they discard the meanings, throw them away, and start over again, and in some cases, throw away their lives in the process. The pseudonymous K.C. Constantine, like Anderson, Wilder, and others before him, allows us to listen in on the whispering, the muttering, the raving, and the declarations, and we come away better able to draw our own conclusions about what's going on around us.
It was a thrill to open a new Mario Balzic novel, and exhilarating to find that Blood Mud is Constantine's best yet. It more than fulfills the promise of Joey's Case (1988), which was nominated for a Edgar Award, and will delight readers who were disappointed when Balzic retired from the police department in Cranks and Shadows (1995), amidst town hall politicking and government downsizing.
Since then, Constantine has written about a previously minor Rocksburg character, the self-effacing but quietly effective Ruggiero "Rugs" Carlucci. Carlucci appeared as the town's acting chief in Good Sons (1996) and in Brushback (1998). Balzic returned as a private eye in Family Values (1997), a fine book that is as close as Constantine has come to penning a thriller.
I've enjoyed following Mario Balzic from his early grumblings and musings about small-town characters and criminals to his increasingly disturbing discoveries about man's ability to do stupid and terrible things -- to other people, to communities, and to the environment. But while writing this review, I have come reluctantly to the realization that Blood Mud is most likely Balzic's last hurrah. Readers who have followed this gritty series, which began in 1972 with The Rocksburg Railroad Murders, can hardly expect Constantine to protect Balzic from the forces of time any more than the author shielded him during his police days from the indignities of municipal government.
I'm sure that Constantine has more wonderful novels left to write. I look forward to new stories about Rugs Carlucci and, perhaps, George Sporcik. But there'll never be another character like Mario Balzic. The conclusion of Blood Mud left me in much the same frame of mind as Balzic: grateful for the fine things I've been given, but sad knowing that his career is near its end. | May 1999
KAREN G. ANDERSON has read every one of K.C. Constantine's Rocksburg books, and considers herself a better person for having done so.