Mario Balzic, police chief of Rocksburg, Pa., has just questioned the husband of a woman he suspects of fraud. Leaving, he slips on a patch of ice. " 'I know what this is for,' he said under his breath, looking up at the heavens. 'This is for that lie about the bad back . . . Listen, I've told worse ones.' "
Suddenly, an old woman starts yelling at him: "Drunk! Bum! Go Home! Get ta hell outta!" she says. She hits him, curses him and hits him again. Her son comes out and, mortified, recognizes Balzic. They talk. It is clear, though never stated, that the woman has Alzheimer's disease, and that the son has no idea what to do.
After offering some suggestions, Balzic goes home looking for solace. He finds this note instead:
"We've gone to the malls, both of them. We're going shopping. We is your mother and me. I am your wife. You saw me recently. I think it was November. It's December now. It's holiday time. Christmas, New Year, fa la la la la la, deck the halls, presents and decorations and things like that. You remember presents . . ."
This scene falls one-third of the way into K.C. Constantine's seventh Balzic novel, "Upon Some Midnights Clear," and while it has little to do with police procedure, it has everything to do with Balzic. That's important because Constantine's crime novels are primarily occasions to follow Balzic through the grimy streets of Rocksburg.
Balzic is a romantic but tough enough. He doesn't trifle with gambling busts but is incensed by police corruption. He is flexible but he has standards. Half-Serbian, half-Italian, he believes in family (he'd better, his mother lives with him) and he knows his city, its citizens, their problems. He sees crime in context. He is an honorable man.
And neither is Balzic pretentious. The city wants him to wear a beeper, but he won't: "You can't go anywhere anymore without one of those goddamn things going beep beep beep beep. One of 'em goes off and everybody starts reaching for their belts. Hey, hey, look at me, look how important I am, people can't get along without me. What a crock."
So in "Upon Some Midnights Clear," Balzic, the self-effacing blue-collar guy who likes to drink wine from jugs with screwtops, who knows everyone in Rocksburg, has to find out exactly what happened to a Mrs. Garbin, who claims she was robbed of $500 -- the Christmas money she'd been saving for three years.
The good Samaritan fire chief, Eddie Sitko, starts a fund. A few thousand dollars accumulates. A reporter for the Rocksburg Gazette writes tear-jerking stories dramatizing Mrs. Garbin's plight. Even the mayor gets excited. But Balzic knows there's something wrong and -- call it a triumph for skepticism -- eventually he uncovers the truth, though not without frequent visits to Muscotti's Bar & Grill to drink red wine in retaliation against "life's stinking little realities."
A minor fraud may not sound like much to hang a mystery novel on, but Constantine has never been particularly interested in the deep-reading of clues or the intricacies of police procedure. Since the first Balzic novel, "The Rocksburg Railroad Murders," appeared in 1972, it has become clear that the pseudonymous Constantine -- exactly who he is is something of a mystery -- is interested primarily in characters and dialogue and, to a lesser extent, the shoot-from-the-hip social commentary characteristic of good crime fiction.
Here he describes some new warehouses that were supposed to be an economic boost to Rocksburg:
"They were filled with beer that was brewed someplace else and would mostly be drunk someplace else and filled those warehouses only because large tax advantages had been offered to the owners to put their warehouses in Rocksburg's Flats. The great increase in employment the tax advantages were supposed to create had never happened." Other crimes do occur on the periphery of "Upon Some Midnights Clear," and the questioning in one of them, when someone is shot at the American Legion, may not be realistic, but it shows off Balzic's humor after hours of fruitless interrogation:
" '. . . What time d'you get in the Legion?'
" 'I was there twice. Which time you want me to talk about?'
" 'Any . . . guys shot the first time?'
" 'I don't think. Uh-uh.'
" 'Then talk about the second time.' "
Ah, Balzic is wonderful. Yet Constantine's novels, in quality and spirit right there with early George V. Higgins and recent Elmore Leonard, have appeared largely unnoticed by otherwise discerning readers of crime fiction. This is as much a mystery to me as how Balzic manages to remain vertical each day after all those trips to Muscotti's. It's time you visited Rocksburg.