"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 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.