In K.C. Constantine’s second mystery, Mario Balzic is chief of police in Rocksburg, Pennsylvania. There’s nothing quirky or eccentric or cute about Rocksburg. It’s a blue-collar town, a place where people of a lot of different ethnic backgrounds have been learning to live together for decades, in a sometimes-precarious evolving relationship. Balzic himself is convincing and deeply sympathetic, but he’s not quirky, either: he’s not a gourmet cook or a fanatic baseball fan or a numbers savant. He’s just an unpretentious, unsentimental, uncaricatured chief of police, who knows nearly everyone in town because that’s his job.
As the book opens, Balzic is hating life. He’s rashly agreed to go hunting with a man and a dog he can’t stand: Lieutenant Harry Minyon of the state police and his overweight Weimaraner. The hunting trip is a cataclysmic bust, and Balzic is just about to leave in a temper when the dog finds a bone. And it’s not an animal bone. How did the body of Frank Gallic wind up on Rod and Gun Club lands? How long has he been there? And who could have hated him enough to saw him into tiny pieces?
This is a short, tidy, effective mystery, not even 150 pages long. They don’t write them like this any more; everyone’s got to spread to 300 pages at least. But in this short space, Constantine evokes a whole small world, spinning on its axis. There’s Balzic working with an African-American pastor and one of his youngest cops toward a shaky kind of racial justice; Minyon’s slurs on Polish people, when half Balzic’s men are named things like Stramksy and Bielsky; Balzic’s gentle banter with his wife and his mother; a drunk-yet-dignified defense attorney named Myron Valcanas who enters the scene with a bandage over his eye which he explains as the result of “reckless eyeballing… only in saloons is justice so swift.” Constantine has a wonderful command of dialogue, and the characterizations are sure-handed and apt.
The denouement of the mystery goes with the rest of the feel of the book. It’s undramatic, in one way: the perpetrator gets caught, just another day on the job. But in another, a whole chunk of human psychology is revealed, and in particular, the man who liked to look at himself is contrasted with another man who can’t bear to. This solid, excellent mystery is more complicated than it looks at first glance. If you can get ahold of these — I’m getting them through interlibrary loan, since my library doesn’t have them — I really do recommend them; they’re terrific.