Friday, March 23, 2018

Playing Wacky Families: Murder Fantastical (1967), by Patricia Moyes

Hooray! There is a new edition, after
34 years, of Silver Age mystery classic
Murder Fantastical
courtesy of the fine folks at
Felony & Mayhem
Portrayals of eccentric, decaying gentry families have produced some of the most memorable of Golden Age British detective fiction.  Who can forget (though some naysayers, critical descendants of Edmund Wilson, perhaps would like to) Ngaio Marsh's Lampreys, Margery Allingham's Palinodes, Agatha Christie's Ankatells, all of whom outrageously and entertainingly strutted upon the stage of fictional murder and mystery in the 1940s?  Sterling Silver Age detective fiction writer Patricia Moyes (1923-2000) was writing in this lustrous Golden Age tradition two decades later when in 1967 she published Murder Fantastical, the seventh of her nineteen Henry and Emmy Tibbett mysteries.  Along with the retrospective Johnny Under Ground, which appeared the previous year, it constitutes a high point in her corpus of crime fiction, which is now being brought back into print by the folks at Felony & Mayhem, purveyors of fine vintage crime fiction.

Murder Fantastical concerns the dotty Manciple family, of the ghastly Victorian pile Cregwell Grange in the village of Cregwell in Fenshire (not far removed from London: Essex, perhaps?) and the queer death of objectionably nouveau riche Raymond Mason--a bookie, if you please, who has the effrontery to manicure the nails on his provokingly stubby fingers and, worse yet, "to pay cash on the barrelhead" to local tradesmen--unlike the real gentry of course, who, as gentry will, make you chase the trolley to get your lolly. 

1984 American pb edition, part of
a splendid series by Owl, which
during the Eighties and Nineties
reprinted all of Moyes' mysteries
A recent arrival in Cregwell, Mason purchased the gatekeeper's lodge at Cregwell Grange from Major George Manciple and his wife, Violet, who since inheriting the Grange from George's father, a distinguished Headmaster (called simply "the Head" by the family), have had trouble keeping up appearances, shall we say, not to mention ceilings and walls. 

On the first page of the novel, John Adamson, Chief Constable of Fenshire and owner of Cregwell Manor, is rung up by George Manciple, who tells Adamson in his circuitous way that Mason has been shot dead in the driveway of the Grange.  At the time George was out firing on his gun range, but he insists that he was not the one who potted the poor bookie, despite the fact that he, George, was most decidedly not getting along with his nettlesome new neighbor at the Lodge, who, it seems, ambitiously had designs on the Grange itself.

In the classic manner of Golden Age British mystery, the locals want nothing to do with this case involving local bigwigs of long standing (even if they're financially imperiled ones), which brings in Chief Superintendent Henry Tibbett of the Yard, Patricia Moyes' clever sleuth in all nineteen of her detective novels. 

It also brings in Henry's keen wife, Emmy, who Henry always seems to bring along with him on his investigations, for no really plausible reason that I can see, aside from giving readers a female investigator as well as a male one, in those days when women did not occupy high ranks in law enforcement.  (He's not the first fictional Yard man to do this, however.)

As Moyes puts it, "Emmy was allowed to come along [ostensibly to visit an old school friend, wife of the local medico] on condition that she kept well out of the way of all police activity."  Okay, sure.  Emmy adds to the book, however, getting some helpful gossip and playing a role at the climax of the novel.  (At the village fete, of course--you knew there would have to be a fete, and quite a fete it is.)  The Tibbett series benefits from her presence as something beyond the stereotypical "supportive wife."

Emmy's help is especially welcome, because on the day of Mason's suspicious slaying, the Grange was more crowded than usual, providing numerous suspects for the consideration of Henry (and, happily, the reader).  Besides George and Violet (who has to do the housekeeping and cooking herself, for the most part; there's a splendid feminist passage about this I may quite in a future post), there are:

You gotta get a pretty girl on the
cover! early Ballantine pb ed.
old Miss Dora Manciple, George's nonagenarian aunt, a devotee of spiritualism (or maybe spiritism?)

George's brothers, Sir Claude Manciple, distinguished director of an atomic research station (he seems surprisingly normal), and Edwin, crossword and clarinet playing retired Bishop of Bugolaland, in Aftrica (he's an odd duck indeed)

Sir Claude's nature and health faddist wife, Lady Ramona

George and Violet's beautiful and brilliant daughter, Maud, lately hired by Sir Claude

Maud's dapper and double-handled fiancee Julian Manning-Richards ("he comes form Bugolaland...of fine old Imperial stock")

Then there's Frank Mason, Socialist son of the murdered man (to my mind his thinking is too loose to be dignified, if you will, with the term Marxist), who, in the tradition of classic British mystery, is always tediously spouting off about the rights of the working man and in the process is made to look rather an ass for doing so.  Take that, you troublesome, estates taxing leftists!  To be sure, this is the kind of thing that did tend to turn off people like Raymond Chandler and Julian Symons, but it's much in keeping with classic British mystery tradition.

American hardcover edition
if you think this an
atrocious over recall that
this was the era of acid and
Yellow Submarine, though
the novel itself could have
been published during
 the age of art deco
Before Henry, with Emmy's help, cracks this complicated case there will be another death, but eventually order will be restored, for the most part, in rather a satisfying way.  Murder Fantastical is the quintessence of cozy crime: smartly, though not showily, written, with a solid puzzle that the reader has a perfectly fair chance of solving for herself.  All in all it makes a most pleasant sojourn to a comfortable if complacent corner of England, possibly imaginary, wherein many of us, suffering the buffets of modern life, like to spend a little time, at least in books.

Fifty years ago Anthony Boucher selected the novel as one of his 13 favorites of 1967 (along with Catherine Aird's A Most Contagious Game, Charlotte Armstrong's Lemon in a Basket and Emma Lathen's Murder Against the Grain); and it's not at all surprising that he did so.  The classic crime fiction loving Boucher called it a "faultlessly plotted and clued puzzle, rich in humor, character and sheer Englishness.

While it's not up to the level of Agatha Christie's best work as a puzzle (to be sure, comparatively few books are), it's certainly as "English" as they come, in the sense that fans of classic mystery will readily appreciate--a true Anglophile's delight.

Coming soon: some more on Moyes place in the genre and her background too.  How much did Murder Fantastical actually draw on real life?

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Like Moths to a Flame Does Murder Draw Us: Wings of Mystery (1929), by William Gavine

"I have now--I think I am justified in saying it--a unique collection of tropical butterflies and moths, existing too under conditions as near to their natural ones as I can contrive.  My incubation methods too have been very successful--if only the death rate were not so very high."

                                                             --Wings of Mystery (1929), by William Gavine

Come back with me, dear readers, to 1929 and those halcyon days of fictional murder, when, around this time, mystery fans were enjoying reading about unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and crime at Black Dudley.  One forgotten story, however, concerns that spot of bother which took place that year at Dasholm House, the lovely Georgian country home of Mrs. Angeline Fry, wealthy "elderly" widow--she's 57, but I'm just quoting the characters here--and a fervent philanthropist of international pacifism, a common cause in the Twenties, when much of the world was wearied by war.

When the novel opens a crisis is coming to an unpleasant head as tensions escalate among Mrs. Fry and her relatives at Dasholm House.  These latter people are her butterfly and moth collecting nephew, Hubert Mervyn; Hubert's rambunctious 13-year-old sister, Dorothy; and a visitor, Mrs. Fry's other nephew, Hilton Amery, a Great War veteran who at the moment is rather on his uppers. Also in the mix are Dorothy's devoted governess, Miss Saunderson; the aged butler, Mr. Darrell; the inevitably Scottish gardener, George Galbraith ("I was head gardener tae puir Mrs. Fry," he explains, Scottishly, after the murder); Hubert's valet, Bunten (a poseur not at all like Bunter, let alone Jeeves); the pacifist footman, Davis; and Mrs. Fry's maid, Edith Hoskins.

herald of death?
white butterfly
Inquisitive young Dorothy seemingly can't stay out of Hubert's hothouse, wherein he keeps his precious collection of exotic butterflies and moths.  Hilton, however, cares nothing for the collection--or for Hubert, whom he considers a spineless jellyfish in the guise of a man. 

Hilton explains to Hubert that after the war he associates white butterflies not with guardian angels, as traditional folklore has it, but with grim carrion death:

"Sorry, old chap.  "My apologies to your proteges....I loathe butterflies, especially white ones.  I saw the brutes swarm too often on the dead in the gullies of Gallipoli.  They haven't much association with the fairies for me now...."

Truth be told, Hilton doesn't think much either of his aunt, Mrs. Fry, though he is hoping that the widow of rolling-in-it coal and iron magnate Jabez Fry will bestow some financial largess upon him, as she lavishes it among the peace groups whose cause he despises.  When Mrs. Fry speaks of war as abomination he thinks:

"dead in the gullies of Gallipoli"
war dead from the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign
see Winston Churchill's World War Disaster
Abomination!  These sheltered women who talked so glibly.  These theorists.  His men facing the crackling scythe of the Turkish machine-guns; four out of forty reached the objective that day.  The scream and blast of Asiatic Annie's shells.  Egypt and its drouth and fatigue and hear.  Palestine and its rain and cold.  France at last and its hellish artillery fire.  Hunger and filth and stench and all that was utterly damnable and yet--There had been good times too and there were things worth fighting for. Kids like Dorothy, their safety and well-being, gentle women like his mother, beautiful things like--

Like, for example, Hubert's lovely young fiancee, Vivien Vachell, with whom Hilton has fallen in love at first sight.  Something that happens a lot in this book! (See below.)  Most bothersomely, however, beautiful Vivien's father, Austin Vachell, with whom Vivien resides nearby, is a pacifist crony of Mrs. Fry who vehemently denies to Hilton having served in the late war, though Hilton thinks he bears the hallmarks of having been gassed.

cartoon depicting Twenties efforts
by the League of Nations to muzzle
the slavering dog of war that devoured
so many human lives during the Great War
It transpires that although Mrs. Fry is a pacifist in theory she is not one in practice, for she is a believer in corporal punishment and never thinks of sparing the rod when Dorothy gets into trouble (which the boisterous girl regrettably does with frequency). After hearing Mrs. Fry beating her wailing niece, chivalrous Hilton confronts his aunt:

"You brute!...You cruel, unfeeling brute to hurt a kid so! "

In addition to the love at first sight matter, this is the sort of book where people get called brutes, beasts, bounders, hounds, rats, worms, cads and, when inspiration runs out, just plain scoundrels. 

On more than one occasion the police are denounced as infernal priers and ordered peremptorily out of houses.  This is a tale where emotions run sky high, in short, and there's a touch of the old sensation novel melodrama.  (Thank goodness we have fair play today, incidentally, and the wealthy never expect, nor receive, favorable treatment from the law!)

With the sad lack of foresight of the classic mystery murderee, Mrs. Fry informs Hubert that she is going to write Hilton into her will, reducing Hubert's and Dorothy's shares, and for good measure she forbids Hubert to marry Vivien Vachell, without providing any explanation.  The next night (August 4, the anniversary of Britain's entry into of the Great War), after her confrontation with Hilton over Dorothy, she orders Hilton (peremptorily, of course) out of the house, adding that he is henceforth Out Of The Will.  (Call her a brute, will you?!)

On the wings of mystery we'll die...
the epiphora bouhiniae
Well, you know how this script goes: Mrs. Fry is discovered dead by the butler on the floor of  her study on the evening of all those emotional theatrics. She's been stabbed to the heart with a silver paper knife!  There is in the room too, not  awhite butterfly, but a great singed moth (epiphora bouhiniae), defunct by a candle.  Is the brown moth a clue, or just a red herring?  "As an entomological stray, he's a gem," pronounces the Scotland Yard man put in charge of the case (see below).

Why rich people with encroaching relations in vintage mysteries keep such tempting deadly things around their houses I'll never know, but invariably their mansions are littered to the rafters with paper knives, letter openers, ornamental Malay kris hanging on the walls, blow pipes with curare-tipped darts brought back from that quaint scenic trip up the Amazon, heavy fireplace pokers perfectly suited for braining, fully loaded antique dueling pistols, you name it--they never learn!

So into the picture come silkily insinuating attorney Mr. Branscombe, the late Mrs. Fry's lawyer; tersely sardonic Dr. Charnock, who was something in the chemical warfare line in the late war; bucolic local Inspector Bourney, a dunderhead who drops his aitches under stress; and, because the locals are afraid to take responsibility for the case, the man on call from Scotland Yard: handsome, young Detective-Inspector Miles Trevarney, so smooth and charming he's a veritable Alleyn-in-waiting, though he's not quite so infernally precious as Ngaio Marsh's posher-than-thou sleuth. 

Welcome aboard, Cupid fanciers, it's love!
Whither wends the heart of Vivien Vachell?
S. S. Van Dine might not have approved
of all this lovey-dovey stuff, but the
love interest actually works pretty well here,
even if you're not much on love interest.
DI Trevarney's claim to Great Detective status soon goes off the rails, however when he too falls head-over-heels in love with Vivien Vachell--that makes three blokes now, including her original fiancee--and he starts to see the case in terms of how Vivien can be cleared, whatever she may have done. To be fair to Trevarney, he doesn't think Vivien actually can be guilty of murder (maybe she's just an accessory after the fact or something), because, well, because she's just so darn beautiful.  Trevarney wouldn't have lasted long in the Garden of Eden, is all I can say.

All this doesn't fly with stolid, happily married Inspector Bourney (with seven children no less), whom I started to like rather better at this point.  I guess I'm just not a romantic.

Overall, however, I would have to say this is an excellent example of the Twenties British mystery, and I have recommended it for reprinting to the Collins Crime Club, who originally published it, nearly 90 years ago.  It works up a good situation, both emotionally and ratiocinatively (I do hope that's a word), throws in a nice couple of twists and ends with a touch of poignancy.  Modern readers may find the book a bit stolid in places, but in that respect it's largely of a piece with its time, at least in many mysteries that were being published by British men at the time (the misanthropic Anthony Berkeley, certainly, excepted).

The women characters--at least the ones who aren't servants or, well, "old," like Mrs. Fry (she is, I must reiterate, 57 [!])--are rather put on pedestals by the men of their class (though, to be sure, the ladies scamper down from them on occasion). The men are sentimental indeed not only about Beauty Incarnate (Vivien Vachell), but Young Kiddies (impulsive Dorothy). However, at least the author manages to work up genuine interest in the characters, which is more than you can say about many crime writers of the period.  I also liked the bits on butterflies and moths, which is done without all the "look what I know!" fancy pants footnotes in which S. S. Van Dine lengthily indulged in his books, like The Bishop Murder Case, which appeared the same year as Wings of Mystery.

The use in the novel of the long nightmare that was the Great War was interesting as well--though ultimately it seems to me that the author is sentimental about that too.  However, the novel shows that not everyone who admitted the horrors of the First World War necessarily regretted the war itself.

But who, some may be wondering, was the author of Wings of Mystery?  Who was William Gavine, apparently the author of this lone mystery?  My theory is it wasn't William Gavine.  More on this paradox next post!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Life on the Rocks: The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1971) and The Blank Page (1973), by KC Constantine

"And to think that in, oh, say, twelve, sixteen years, you'll be down in Washington, after you do the bit in Harrisburg, of course.  What are you thinking about, Milt--you going to hustle for state's attorney general, or you going right after the governor's house?  Will it be the House first and then the Senate?"

"Beaten to death with a Coke bottle," Milt Weigh said.  "My God."
"Hell of a thought, ain't it?"  Balzic said.

"No I don't want your goddamn hanky, and no I'm not going to tell you where he is, because I don't know where.  I gave him every cent I could spare.  Sixty-two dollars.  He took the car this morning, and that was the last I saw him.  Satisfied?"
"No," Balzic said, sighing, "are you?"
She told him in Italian to fuck himself.
"That's not going to help.  You got any ideas?"

                                    --The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1971), by K. C. Constantine

I have a feeling we're not in Rocksburg anymore.
One thing hasn't changed since 1971: Devious politicians, unworthy of the devotion which sadly deluded voters have placed in them, still parade across our long-suffering land.  Rocksburg's police chief, Mario Balzic, has a low tolerance for their BS, and, if you feel the same way he does, the novels by K. C. Constantine that detail his criminal investigations can be cathartic. But I recommend them for pure entertainment too. 

Since 2016 political prognosticators routinely dub southwestern Pennsylvania "Trump Country," this region having proved essentials to enabling the celebrity real estate hustler turned Republican pol to squeak through to an electoral college presidential election victory over his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.  Trump beat Clinton by 44,000 votes in the state, a margin of seven-tenths of a percent. 

Outside of eastern Pennsylvania, Clinton won merely three counties in the state, only one of which is in the southwestern region: Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh, the Steel City, is located.  There Clinton won by 56-40 percent and 108,000 votes. 

In the nearby borough of Mckees Rocks, the hometown of crime writer K. C. Constantine and the presumed model for the "Rocksburg" setting of his novels, Clinton won by an even larger margin, 66-31 percent, 1504 votes to 703.  However, Barack Obama's victory margin over Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential contest was a whopping 53%, so there was marked movement in Trump's direction even in this western PA Democratic citadel. 

Still, with a special election coming up in Pennsylvania's gerrymandered and quite Trump-friendly 18th district (he won there by 22%), which by design snakes around Pittsburgh proper, there's talk the local Democrat may actually pull out a win against the Republican, Trump-stumped in the President's inimitable fashion over the weekend.  We'll see.

Since the 2016 presidential election there has been much talk about the decline of the coal, iron and steel industries in southwestern Pennsylvania, with the concomitant turning away from the Democratic party of white working class voters alienated with the party's focus on minorities and upwardly mobile suburbanites.

Certainly Mckees Rocks has seen an ample share of decline, its population having fallen, with the demise of its traditional industries, in every US census taken since 1940.  This drop sharply accelerated between 1970 and 1980, when the town lost over a quarter of its population during the course of an economically disastrous decade.  In 1930, four years before K. C. Constantine was born, Mckees Rocks had a population of over 18,000; today it's population is estimated to be under 6000, less than a third of what it once was.  This is a more drastic diminution than what Ireland saw after the Potato Famine and decades of Irish flight (from 6.6 mil in 1841 to 3.2 mil in 1901--the island, incidentally, only recently surpassed its 1841 population).

When the first K. C. Constantine mystery, The Rocksburg Railroad Murders, was published in 1971, however, Mckees Rocks still had a population of over 12,000; and the downbeat narrative of urban decay is not so pronounced in his Seventies books.  What I have come away with in my reading of the early Rocksburg mysteries are impressions not so much of woeful economic failure but rather of an intricate and fascinating multi-cultural urban mosaic reflected in Rocksburg and of the human sympathy and interest in criminal psychology evinced by the author, conveyed through the person of his earthy and empathetic Serbo-Italian police chief, Mario Balzic.  Though their series sleuths are not cops, the crime novels of the then contemporary authors Ross Macdonald and Joseph Hansen, the latter of whom preceded Constantine in print by a single year, to me seem similar to those by Constantine.

Although horrible things happen to people in the Mario Balzic books and people are apt to express themselves quite pungently (i.e., the f-word gets something of a workout, which likely made more of an impact in the early Seventies), the warmly conveyed environs of Rocksburg--Balzic's home life with his wife, mother and two daughters; his workplace with its multi-ethnic company of cops; and Muscotti's, the bar he patronizes--lend a sense of comfort to the stories. 

Indeed, if there is such a thing as a cozy police procedural, this could be it, though perhaps some people will think I've flipped my lid in making this contention.  Yet the books have got a cozy quality to them, at least for me, in that I find in Rocksburg a place to which I want to return again for additional visits.  These are people there whom I want to meet again and places that I want to see.  Life is hard in Rocksburg, and during murder investigations there are copious tears shed and some people who may be irreparably broken along the way; yet Chief Balzic sees us through all of it, as a classic sleuth is supposed to do.  He gives us some sense of closure and consolation amidst the frightening chaos that threatens to engulf us all.

Perhaps this sense has something to do with my own family background, my mother having been born in Pennsylvania only three years earlier than K. C. Constantine--or, to call him by his true name, Carl Constantine Kosak. 

Admittedly, my mother was born in a village in central Pennsylvania of only a little over 600 people, where the population has not changed much at all, one way or the other, in 150 years.  The people there are mostly of German ancestry and most of their ancestors came to Pennsylvania in the 1700s, with nary a Slavic or Italian or Greek or Irish or African American in evidence or even much Scots-Irish presence that I can recall, though there are some of partly English heritage, with the inevitable preponderance of German intermixed. The old church is Lutheran, naturally, and the cemetery is filled with headstones with German names. 

Old Pennsylvania Dutch traditions still were strong enough there in the Thirties that my mother's grandmother, who saw Lincoln's casket in Harrisburg when she was a girl and died on the eve of the Second World War, practiced the folk medicine (some said magic) known as powwow.  But there were coal mines nearby--though they never dominated the life of the village or led to any real growth there--and my mother's father worked in them, as did many neighbors.

So it may be that I'm naturally disposed to take an interest in G. K. Constantine's Rocksburg books, with their intimate ethnic immigrant working class setting, so far removed from the deliberately artificial gentrified world of Carolyn Wells and mystery writers of her ilk from the classic era, as I've mentioned before.  However, I maintain that it's more than that: the books simply are damn well written and bracingly authentic.

As mentioned in my last post, puzzle purists Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor evince a high regard in their critical tome A Catalogue of Crime for the actual detection in Constantine's second crime novel, The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself (1972). But what about the author's first and his third books, which were smartly reissued together in one volume in the early 1980s by publisher David R. Godine?  To be honest, Barzun and Taylor, plot sticklers both, weren't so crazy about these two. 

I'm much more positive about them than is the Barzun and Taylor Catalogue, especially the third book, The Blank Page, which to me seems unique in the Constantine corpus of crime fiction. (Constantine himself declared the book is terrible, but the late genre scholar Robin Winks, a great admirer of Constantine who contributed an illuminating afterword to the excellent Godine twofer volume, begged to differ, pronouncing it the author's best.  I suspect as an academic he had a bit of a bias in its favor, but I share his admiration for the book.)

The Rocksburg Railraod Murders is about Mario Balzic's investigation into the murder of local man John Andrasko (beaten to death with a Coca-Cola bottle--they were glass back then--so much for teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony and buying the world a Coke and keeping it company).

The murdered man was attacked while at the railway station to take a train, and were this a Freeman Wills Crofts story there would be a lot about trains and timetables.  However, here Balzic quickly deduces the culprit, to a great extent for psychological reasons, and he spends the rest of the book trying to stop this person from killing again.  So people wanting a "surprise" at the end are going to be disappointed.  However, there's great local color and human interest and suspense as to how it will all turn out in the end. 

Now there's a fan!

In this one a local priest named Father Marrazo plays a big role and he's a fine character.  There's also Myron Valcanas, Constantine's splendid, and invariably sozzled, defense attorney.  Women don't yet seem to exist much in the way of professional capacities in this world, but they are well-conveyed characters when they appear, and some of them real tough birds too.

Then there are references to President Nixon and Spiro Agnew and Dick Clark's American Bandstand and "sloppy" lasagna made with cottage cheese rather than ricotta.  (My sister used to do this too.)  And Anna Magnani and Peggy Lee ("Is That All There Is?") and Frankie Avalon. "Oh Daddy.  Frankie Avalon's ancient history," a daughter tells Balzic.  That, young lady, was before "Beauty School Dropout"!

Balzic is an interesting cop.  He scoffs at the attempt of the ambitious local DA, Milt Weigh, to pin the blame for the crime on local hippy types (he wants to ride the drug issue to higher office), and for a page the police chief explains his theory as to why cops should not carry guns--which I must admit seems quaint today in our gun-happy (or perhaps unhappy) nation, as we talk about protecting our schools by arming teachers.  No doubt in today's world Balzic would be getting denounced as a dangerous liberal in tweets and on TV by the likes of Sean Hannity.  But I think Balzic could handle the criticism. 

His thoughts were a jumble.  Nothing made sense.  He felt the way he felt when he read a newspaper account of some seemingly isolated act of violence, when the reporter called the act "senseless."  The word annoyed and angered him because he believed that no violence was truly senseless.  It always made sense if you took the time to analyze it.  He believed that was as true about the violence done upstairs as about any other violence he had known, except that everything about this violence did indeed appear senseless.  There had been no robbery, no sound, no struggle, and he was willing to bet that there had been no sex....He was as sure of that as he was unsure what the piece of paper on her stomach meant.  There was a message there, but one without words and one that therefore said everything at the same time it said nothing.

--The Blank Page (1973), by K. C. Constantine

waiting for Roethke
What will he tell us?
The Blank Page, about the non-sexual murder of a non-entity community college student, Janet Pisula, found strangled and semi-nude in her room at a boarding house, a blank sheet of paper on her stomach, seems unique in the Balzic series in being more of a "literary" work.  Maybe Constantine doesn't like the book because he feels it moved too far from a blue-collar milieu in the direction of the "classic" mystery.  I myself found it a fascinating story. 

The titular blank page lends a bookish quality to the story, appealing to those of us who like tricky plot tidbits like Ellery Queen's cryptic dying messages.  Then there is the initial setting, which definitely is the stuff of classic mystery: a boarding house run by a decayed gentlewoman spinster, Miss Cynthia Summer, in the old family mansion, built many decades past by her wealthy mine and factory owner father.

Mckees Rocks home of the late Catherine Baker Knoll
former Democratic lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania
photo by Jonathan Denson; see his wonderful website,
Discovering Historic Pittsburgh
Preservation & Photography
Miss Cynthia has managed to hang on to the house by having cut a deal with the local community college, to whom she donated most of the land that went with the house; but it will go to the college after her death, and in the meantime she has to cut coupons and take in students as lodgers.

With some tweaking we might have had a real modern classic detective novel, but as it stands The Blank Page is quite an intriguing police procedural crime novel, with some piercing psychology, biting satire of academia and welcome additional personal details about Balzic.  (We learn here about his father's fate.) 

There's more with Father Marrazo and Mo Valcanas too.  And, for the literary, there's mention of Studs Lonigan, Timon of Athens and Theodore Roethke.  Lots indeed about Roethke, "the sanest lunatic of the last forty years."

This is a good one I believe, whatever Kosak thinks today: An intriguing and moving mystery about writing, which I think writers, or strivers of any sort, will especially appreciate.

Query: Could Constantine's "Balzic" be meant to suggest "Balzac"--i.e., French novelist Honore de Balzac and his novel sequence La Comedie Humaine?  Like Balzac, Constantine with his Rocksburg tales presents his readers a detailed and "unfiltered representation of society," though in Constantine's case, of course, there is always some measure of murder in the mix.  We'll talk about this more soon, I hope!

Friday, March 2, 2018

Rocksburg, Pennsylvania: The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself (1973), by KC Constantine

"You know, Balzic," Peluzzi said, facing Balzic again, "I can remember you from Mother of Sorrows."

"You can?"

"Yeah.  I only lasted till the second grade up there, and then my old man couldn't go the freight no more.  But I remember you.  I was in the second grade and you were in first.  You were a nosy prick even then.  You used to come around asking everybody what they had for lunch."

"I guess I'm just naturally inquisitive."

                              --The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself (1973), K. C. Constantine


Author K. C. Constantine appeared on the mystery scene in 1971 with The Rocksburg Railroad Murders.  Judging by the reviews excerpted on the back cover of Constantine's a second mystery, The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself (which like Rocksburg and all of the Constantine crime novels is set in western Pennsylvania), Rocksburg was raved by reviewers.  Sadly, Anthony Boucher, who I suspect would have loved Constantine's books and probably spearheaded an effort to get him a deserved Edgar nomination, passed away four years before Rocksburg was published.  However, other critics picked up the slack, at least as far as words of praise went:

In its quiet way [The Rocksburg Railroad Murders] carries a tremendous wallop.  It certainly is one of the most sensitive crime novels of recent years.--New York Times Book Review

A neat first mystery.  Best of all, Constantine has created some very personable characters....They are a winning combination that I, for one, would like to see more of.--Saturday Review

Chief Balzic isn't the ordinary mystery hero.  Neither are his friends and enemies the usual cast of supporting characters.  But they are highly effective.  K. C. Constantine has taken the virtues (and vices) of small-town Middle America, put them into The Rocksburg Raiload Murders and come up with a literate, readable mystery that could establish Mario Balzic as something of a blue-collar folk hero.--Chicago News

The dialogue is so good it might have been tape-recorded, the characterizations--a town full--superb.  At its heart is Balzic, decent, unpretentious, unsentimentalized, uncaricatured.  Not since Harry Kemelmen introduced Rabbi David Small has there been such an impressive debut.  Encore!--Washington Star

I'd be very pleased with such reviews for my debut mystery, were I a mystery writer!  Constantine followed Rocksburg the next year with another Mario Balzic saga, The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself (1973), which dealt with some singularly unpleasant subject matter.  It received another rave review from the New York Times Book Review, "Newgate Calendar" writing:

Something of a stir was caused last February with the publication of The Rocksburg Railroad Murders by K. C. Constantine.  The book attracted a good deal of attention for its middle-class ambiance, its realism and the author's indefatigable ear for blue-collar patterns of speech and thought.  Now comes The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself and it turns out to be as good as its predecessor....the mystery itself is well plotted and traditionalists will find that Constantine plays scrupulously fair in his puzzle.  But more than that, there is the evocation of the sullen. tension-ridden, anti-intellectual atmosphere that is one part of small-town America.  Constantine is a marvelous writer.  May Mario Balzic thrive!

In the second edition of their mammoth tome on mystery fiction, A Catalogue of Crime, those "traditionalists" (i.e., puzzle purists) Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor chimed in with the contemporary critics, praising The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself as "a top-grade blue-collar, small-town mystery," with dialogue "such that it might have been tape-recorded."  The pair of puzzle enthusiasts included Constantine's novel in their series 100 Classics of Crime Fiction, 1900-1975.  Only two novels, The Night Hunters by John Miles (review coming soon) and Ellis Peters' Never Pick up Hitchhikers, followed it.

It was interesting to see this book so highly lauded by Barzun and Taylor, a pair of detective fiction devotees who often are seen as dogmatists on the matter of the puzzle being placed foremost in a mystery.  Certainty no one is going to compare The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself with the great classics of the Golden Age, as far as the puzzle goes; yet it is a superb example of the modern murder mystery, where emphasis is placed on not soley on mystification and detection but on convincingly conveying a strong sense of character and milieu. 

American paperback edition
The opening of the novel is very much in the classic mode.  Police Chief Mario Balzic, a member of the Rocksburg Police Rod and Gun Club, is out hunting pheasants with the new chief of detectives of the state police, Lieutenant Harry Minyon, a man he dislikes, and Minyon's "overweight, badly conditioned, ill-tempered Weimaraner," a dog he abominates.  Balzic himself is not in the best of tempers.

The dog, on the other hand, has transfigured into ecstasy, having discovered severed human bones buried in a crab apple copse (indeed, this novel would have been called The Corpse in the Crab Apple Copse in olden times).  Thus is Balzic embarked on a new murder case, following that shocking and sordid Rocksburg Railway station affair.

According to the medical examiner's report, the bones were those of man in his forties.  Balzic finds a missing person who seems to fit this bill, which takes him to a "Freezer Meats" store put in the country.  Readers of Golden Age crime fiction might be reminded of Gladys Mitchell's The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop, published four decades previously, but where Mitchell finds the idea of disjointed human corpses all rather jolly, Constantine treats the matter quite soberly.  Before the tale is over matters have gotten quite dark indeed. 

There are some spots of humor in the tale, particularly with drunken, Greek-heritage defense attorney Mo Valcanas, but overall this is a pretty grim affair--and a gripping one too.  Impeccable is the author's sense of place and character, which is conveyed most often through lively and pungent dialogue (warning to sensitive readers: epithets mouthed by the various characters for the varied ethnic groups who comprise Rocksburg are numerous).  It pulled me into the story and kept me there.  Had Sherwood Anderson, of Winesburg, Ohio fame, written crime novels, they might have been something like this.  This is emphatically not the world of vintage American crime writer Carolyn Wells, who as we saw in an earlier post liked to write about what she imagined to be "nice, clean, white-collared murders."

Rocksburg, Pennsylvania is a place we will be visiting again at this blog soon, when there will be more details about the author and the places which inspired this series of crime novels, which spanned the last three decades of the 20th century.