The Rocksburg Railroad Murders

Rocksburg, Pennsylvania is an old steel-mill town, and Mario Balzic is its chief of police. It’s not a big town, and it’s full of the working-class Italians, Poles, Serbs, Jews, and African-Americans who do the labor in small towns all over the country. Even more than a detective story, this is a portrait of blue-collar, small-town America. So when John Andrasko, a man Mario has known since they were children, turns up savagely beaten to death near the railroad, it’s not difficult to form a theory about who did it and why. The difficulty is only doing the policework to prove it.

I liked this book right from the first scene, when the police find the body. Mario takes a look at the unrecognizable form he’s known all his life, and the first thing he does is to lose his lunch. No stoic police force here, and Mario continues to develop in the same way, full of compassion and common sense. The book is carried entirely on its deeply-thought and well-formed characters, and the plot is almost an afterthought.

K.C. Constantine’s favorite structural device is the conversation, and it’s through pitch-perfect dialogue that he conveys information, atmosphere, feeling, and tone. Mario lives with his wife, his two daughters, and his mother, and there’s a conversation between him and his mother that delivers almost everything you want to know about either of those people:

“Something happened, Ma. You make any coffee?”

“Not yet. I no have time.” Mrs. Balzic started to laugh. “Hey, Mario, ain’t that funny? I’m up half the night and don’t think I got time for making coffee. Ah, I don’t know, Mario. Every day more, more get tired. Pretty soon die, I think.”

“Quit talking like that, will you. You ain’t going to die.”

“Mario, don’t be stupid. I don’t raise you up be stupid. Everybody going to die. Soon, late — what the heck you think? I going live forever?”

“I know all that, Ma, but I don’t like to hear you talk about it, that’s all. Where’s the instant?”

“Same place always, Mario. How long you live here?”…

Mario stood outside fretting. “Goddammit,” he whispered, “don’t let nothing happen to her.”

Another scene between Mario and one of his lieutenants, in which Mario explains why he doesn’t carry a gun or allow his men on the beat to do so, is carefully crafted in a rhythm that reminded me of the best of Ed McBain or Robert Parker, though this book is warmer than either of those masters.

I read this book because Michael Dirda recommended the most recent novel in the series, Grievance. Grievance was written in 2000, while this was written in 1972, and I expect there is a huge difference in style, content, and tone between the two, as Constantine goes on finding his voice — but I am very picky about starting a series at the beginning. This was an excellent police procedural, full of life and character and heat. I can’t wait to read more.

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7 Responses to The Rocksburg Railroad Murders

  1. It’s actually amazing how little Constantine changes, at least how little the voice changes. Even the purpose stays the same, if you think of the novels not as police procedurals but as a thirty-year chronicle of the life and decline of his town.

    I wouldn’t recommend too much neurosis about the order, but there is a domestic drama side to the novels, about his marriage and family, where the serial aspect has some nice payoffs.

    There’s a sequence in the middle that I think is the high point – Joey’s Case, Sunshine Enemies, and Bottom Liner Blues.

    • Jenny says:

      The reason I like to read series in order is the domestic drama sort of thing. It’s the only real reason to read, for instance, McBain’s 87th Precinct novels in order.

      I read that those novels you mention tend to leave the mystery conceit behind altogether. Yes?

      • Yeah, sort of. They’re stories about a guy whose job lets him see a lot of other people’s troubles, whether he wants to or not.

        One of them was nominated for an Edgar, so I guess they still count as “mysteries.” Barely.

  2. LoudCloud says:

    The “Down Home Cookin” of the literary world. I have read all the books in the series and loved most of them. Nice to see someone is blogging about one of the most overlooked writers. Did anybody ever find out who Constantine really is?

    • Jenny says:

      I heard several rumors, but I don’t know that anything really substantive came out except that he was born in the 1930s. That probably explains why the most recent book was written in 2000. I’m looking forward to the rest of these.

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