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TT 233: K.C. Constantine
RIP to a master
No official obituary seems to have been published, but Mysterious Press announced on twitter that Carl Kosak, known to mystery readers as K.C. Constantine, passed away a few days ago.
There are 17 novels by K. C. Constantine, most of them starring police chief Mario Balzic. While nominally filed under “mystery fiction” — Balzic solves a few murders here and there — the books are mostly leftist investigations into class and politics. Constantine himself said that he initially wanted to write ambitious literary fiction, and began producing mysteries only after realizing that genre fiction was much easier to publish.
It was a wise choice, for Constantine ended up creating the most humble set of police procedurals in history. They are obdurate classics of the form: proud, poetic, and working class to the bone. Crime fiction is escapist by definition, so very little in the genre had explored the working class from a genuinely sympathetic perspective. There was plenty of room for Mario Balzic on the shelf.
The vivid setting is Rocksburg, Pennsylvania. Rocksburg is fictional, but it is modeled on Constantine’s birthplace, McKees Rocks, one of many small towns that thrived when small Pennsylvania mines were active during the pre-war era. After the easiest-to-get resources were extracted, people moved on to greener pastures, leaving behind communities that barely kept ticking over. The author explained, “I also happened to have been born at the height of the Great Depression in an industrial town that nearly dried up and blew away as a result of it, and I’ll never shake that experience.”
(Allentown is a bit too big to be Rocksburg, but the denizens of Rocksburg surely identify with Billy Joel’s hit song: “Well, we're waiting here in Allentown/For the Pennsylvania we never found/For the promises our teachers gave/If we worked hard, if we behaved/So the graduations hang on the wall/But they never really helped us at all/No they never taught us what was real/Iron and coke, chromium steel/And we're waiting here in Allentown/ But they've taken all the coal from the ground/And the union people crawled away.”)
Rocksburg’s fictional history is told in an even thirty years, from 1972 to 2002. In the first few books the economics are functional enough. Among other basic facts of life, Dom Muscotti is a small-time nonviolent mafioso who runs the numbers racket and drinks with the chief.
Later on, Reaganomics almost kills Rocksburg off completely.
(According to Wikipedia, the Mckees Rocks census was 17,000 in 1950, 12,000 in 1970, and 8,000 in 1990. Currently it is less than 6,000.)
Even when the town is at its lowest ebb, the rich find ways to keep getting richer. When finally handing in his badge, Balzic’s biggest regret is how he didn’t realize just how much upper-class criminal conspiracy had occurred on his watch.
I’ve read all the K. C. Constantine books, in some cases several times. While I’m not from Pennsylvania, I could relate to the characters. My grandpa Walt worked for a railroad that took taconite from the mines to the docks; my uncle Bud had a war in Korea similar to Balzic’s; my dad and his best friend got drunk at their local while railing against Ronald Reagan, just like the Rocksburg crew that hangs out at Muscotti’s bar.
After I had read all of Hammett, Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and everything else, I was ready for a truly unique take on the form.
The closest reference to Constantine is George V. Higgins, who like Constantine fills his pages with dialogues rather than action. However, Higgins is essentially yet another “cool and sexy” crime writer where all the characters know how to banter. My favorite, Charles Willeford, might be even more downbeat than Constantine, but Willeford uses depressing situations in order to generate the darkly comic and surreal.
At his best, Constantine is just writing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. There’s no sexy banter, there’s nothing surreal. It is what it is.
Over a decade ago I started writing a proper overview, but quit when I decided the books sharply declined in quality. Since the author was still alive, it felt mean-spirited to be truthful. My quick assessment of the arc:
The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1972)
The Man Who Liked To Look At Himself (1973)
The Blank Page (1974)
A Fix Like This (1975)
The first four novels written in the ‘70s are psychological puzzles. Constantine is finding his way.
The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes (1982)
Always a Body to Trade (1983)
Upon Some Midnights Clear (1985)
Joey's Case (1988)
Sunshine Enemies (1990)
The five novels from the ’80s are the peak. The balance of politics and character is finely judged. Absolutely unique and beautiful.
Always a Body to Trade made my list, for I just adore the education of new mayor Kenny Strohn, who is repeatedly taught basic civics by Balzic in scene after scene of flawless dialogue.
Bottom Liner Blues (1993)
Cranks and Shadows (1995)
After reading Bottom Liner Blues I realized I didn’t want to live in Rocksburg quite as much anymore. For the first time, political manifesto dwarfs story, and Constantine puts himself in the book as the annoying writer Myushkin.
Balzic retires in Cranks and Shadows. There are good scenes, but Balzic’s domestic discussions with his wife Ruth go on for pages and pages.
Good Sons (1996)
Family Values (1997)
Blood Mud (1999)
Saving Room for Dessert (2002)
Starting in the mid-‘90s, Detective Rugs Carlucci takes over from Balzic as the lead character. Typically for Constantine, Carlucci’s battle to keep his elderly mother safe and sound (despite the mother suffering from violent dementia) is in the forefront of the narrative. Truly, nobody else in the genre would dare to be this realistic and this depressing at this length.
Carlucci is not as charismatic as Balzic, but there are great things in most of these books. However, the final entry on the list, Saving Room for Dessert, is a notably unsuccessful departure from the author’s style.
Unexpectedly, Mysterious Press has announced a final novel from Constantine, Another Day’s Pain, to be published posthumously this winter. If I enjoy the new book, I may take the opportunity to re-asses the canon with compassion. The Balzic series was unquestionably part of my political education; indeed, a body of work that is engraved upon my heart in granite.
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