The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes

man who liked slow tomatoesAm I convincing any of you to read these K.C. Constantine mysteries yet? This is the fifth of them I’ve read (and the third in fairly quick succession — I feel like a bit of a glutton), and I am starting to think I should wear a sandwich board saying READ THE MARIO BALZIC MYSTERIES. (With sandwiches in it, naturally.) Or hand out little pamphlets. They are just wonderful.

Constantine wrote The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes in 1982, after a seven-year hiatus. I don’t know what he was doing during those seven years, but he didn’t lose any of his writing mojo. This book, at its core, is about a domestic disturbance that hasn’t happened yet. Frances Romanelli, whom Balzic knew when she was little, calls the police station in hysterics because her husband has disappeared. When Balzic comes to the house, he discovers that the husband, Jimmy, was never a nice guy (“You could never tell him nothing,” say his associates.) He’s recently become much less nice because he was laid off at the mine, becoming silent, drunk, and deciding it’s okay to viciously tee off on his wife when things don’t please him at home. Balzic can see the outlines of a crime waiting to happen, but he doesn’t know what it will be: will Jimmy kill Frances? Will Frances, who has gotten a job and with it a little taste of a different life, kill Jimmy? Will Frances’s father, an overbearing and stubborn immigrant from Italy, snap and do something he’ll regret?

Constantine’s preferred structure is the conversation. He likes people to explain what’s going on in long conversations, so Mario Balzic is the world’s greatest listener. Some of these conversations are total digressions from the plot, but all of them are worth reading. This mystery (like the others) is neat and short at only 150 pages, and there’s a lot going on: drug involvement, a pending strike over negotiations between the police department and the city, Balzic’s relationship with his wife and his mother. Yet Constantine takes the time to have Balzic listen for five of those pages to a bartender who wants to tell him about why he watches football:

“Those aren’t high school kids down there; those are men. Giants. And they’re down there strugglin’ and sweatin’ and bleedin’ and doin’ a little war right there between those chalk stripes on the grass and I just found out I could whoop and holler my guts out and nobody would think I was nuts. It didn’t make no difference to anybody else what I was really hollering about. People around me were all hollering too. I mean, it really helps you, brother, to reach down to your toes and pull out a yell you been keepin’ bottled up inside you for Christ knows how long.[…] Like one of the goddamned linemen, nobody knows their names, they’d work their ass off and no matter what they did they’d still get beat and oh, I used to holler. I used to scream and a lotta people thought I was screamin’ at them. But I wasn’t. I was screamin’ for how they must’ve felt ’cause that’s how I felt. […]”

“I never heard it explained like this before,” Balzic said.

Constantine wraps his themes of pride, honor, relationship, work (and lack of work) and negotiation around the streets of Rocksburg, PA, right there in the Rust Belt. With characteristic dry, dry humor and deep insight, he takes us to bars and police stations, mining neighborhoods and Catholic churches and backyard gardens full of early tomatoes. Every sentence rings true. Read these mysteries. And here, have a sandwich.

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5 Responses to The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes

  1. bertrandpoag says:

    The real mystery is “who is/was KC Constantine”? I’ve read all his books but they just stopped. Everyone agrees it was a pen name but did he/she die? Did he/she go on to write some other well received series under another pen name or perhaps his/her real name? We’ll never know but what we do know is the Balzic series is a real treat to read over and over again.

    • Jenny says:

      I think there’s actually a pretty good idea of who Constantine is, as Tom points out below. He is reclusive but not unknown — take a look at the Wikipedia article for a summary. You’re certainly right that the books stopped in 2000, though, and we probably can’t hope for any more. Alas! But what a series to be grateful for.

  2. Wiki may disappoint you, then.

    Jenny, you may have seen me complain about authors who lean too much on dialogue. Ordinarily good fictional speech is too common to get much credit. But speech and dialogue as good as Constantine’s, that’s in another category. Rare.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes — I don’t agree with you about leaning too much on dialogue; if someone has a real knack for it, I’m happy. It’s one of the ways I like to read good sentences. But this — you’re right that this is a step up from most even quite good dialogue. So satisfying.

  3. Laurie C says:

    You’ve convinced me! I love good dialogue, especially because I do most of my mystery reading via audio. These sound like they’re probably not available on audio, though, so I’ll look for them in print.

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