In The Blank Page, Mario Balzic is still chief of police in Rocksburg, Pennsylvania. It’s an old steel-mill town, full of blue-collar people doing their best to get by: these books are police procedurals, yes, but they are also a portrait of the inner workings of a small town. Everyone has a story, and it’s Balzic’s job to know them all, and in some cases to know how the stories are going to turn out before they’re written. Which is why it bothers him so much when Janet Pisula, a college girl, is murdered, a blank sheet of paper left on her stomach. What kind of story is that?
As with K.C. Constantine’s other books, this is a quiet, tidy mystery of about 150 pages (when was the last time you read a mystery of 150 pages?) There’s nothing cute or charming about Rocksburg or about Mario Balzic, just a man doing the steady police work to find out what happened to an intensely isolated — and, as it turns out, traumatized — girl. There’s a subplot involving Balzic’s mother and his wife (Balzic doesn’t trust his wife’s brother, but he doesn’t know how to tell her about it) that gives a gentle counterpoint to the psychology of the main plot, as well.
Some of my favorite moments in this novel were academic satire, one of my favorite genres. Balzic turns up to talk to the academic dean, and finds him (and a bunch of other professors) drunk and high as kites, a state in which most of them remain most of the way through the novel. They all pontificate at length, too. It reminded me of Robert Parker’s first Spenser novel, whose first unforgettable line is “The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse.” (After all, the two authors were just about contemporaneous.)
The end of the novel is a little over the top, as our focus shifts not completely successfully from the victim to the perpetrator (whose vernacular is 70s-dated.) But to be honest, as a comparison to the snow-globe-perfect world of Three Pines in the Inspector Gamache novels, Rocksburg is a refreshing reminder that a place doesn’t have to be enticingly perfect to be endlessly interesting.