The identity of K.C. Constantine, said to be the pseudonym of a small-city Pennsylvania newspaperman, remains a well-kept secret. What is no secret is that he is a superb writer and social chronicler, whose 11 novels about Police Chief Mario Balzic of a small Pennsylvania city called Rocksburg constitute a unique body of work.
The series began 23 years ago with "The Rocksburg Railroad Murders." Now, with CRANKS AND SHADOWS (Mysterious Press: $19.95; 314 pp.), the series is evidently ending. The volatile half-Italian, half-Hungarian Balzic has hit retirement age; his wife is pressuring him about Florida. Rocksburg has become an economic wasteland, thanks to the recession and the flight of its major industries. Worse yet, the mayor has told Balzic to cut three officers from his already hard-pressed and underpaid force.
But crime, or social disorder, marches on. An irascible elder holds his wife hostage and complains of uniformed men stalking him. True enough, a paramilitary militia has formed, brandishing automatic rifles and doing maneuvers in the local countryside, sneering at Balzic because they have some city and county officials, even one of Balzic's own men, with them.
Constantine stirs this bitter brew with economy and skill, and glints of humor. Yet the incidents and confrontations are simply augmentations of his portrait of this profane, dead-honest, beleaguered, unhappy good man. There are, as in the previous novel, "Bottom Liner Blues," long, long conversations of tape recorder accuracy which, like transcripts, make their effects by simple accumulation.
No one since John O'Hara has dissected class distinctions in a Pennsylvania community with such sensitivity and pinpoint accuracy--and such implicit scorn for power players quite devoid of Balzic's dogged sense of honor. It is melancholy to think we have seen, or read, the last of Balzic, but he has earned some time in the sun and, who knows, maybe Florida will find it needs him.
Amanda Cross is another pseudonym, which has, however, never really concealed Carolyn G. Heilbrun, a professor emeritus from Columbia. Her Kate Fansler is also an eastern university professor of English with a side gift for solving mysteries. But always and increasingly Fansler has been the author's indignant spokesperson on the small but deadly wars within academia and most especially on the struggle of women for anything like equal footing in a sexist male environment.
The latest Kate Fansler adventure, AN IMPERFECT SPY (Ballantine: $20; 240 pp.), is only narrowly a mystery but it is, as its title suggests, a homage to John LeCarr, and there are quotes from his work atop each chapter.
Cross introduces a fascinating character at the start, a woman named Harriet who is a LeCarr worshiper and who appears to be adopting the tactics of George Smiley, for reasons not immediately clear. She works at a dubious law school where the anti-feminine bias is potent, unrelenting and--enter the mystery--despicable in its workings. Fansler and her lawyer husband Reed are both spending a term as visiting teachers at the school, and what Kate concludes at last is that the anti-feminism is also very right-wing.
The Cross portrait of the school is, of course, devastating and funny in equal dosages and is manifestly the object of the exercise. Harriet the scheming secretary re-emerges to pull the plot together and, with the help of Kate and her husband, to correct an injustice.
The dialogue is, as always, elegant and polished, but does not conceal a steely intelligence at work.
Abigail Padgett, the San Diego social worker who writes about Bo Bradley, a San Diego investigator of child abuse cases, sailed handsomely over the hurdle of a second novel. Her third, TURTLE BABY (Mysterious Press: $19.95; 278 pp.), is ambitious, eventful, atmospheric and toned with the compassion that Padgett has made a trademark.
Little Turtle is the name of an infant, of Mayan descent, who has been poisoned, apparently deliberately, with a toxic herb. Why kill a baby? The mother is a former prostitute just making a new start as a singer in Tijuana, trying to raise the child in hard circumstances. She has a manager, a boyfriend, a wacko husband who has jumped prison in Louisiana and is heading west.
Padgett has a feeling for Indian cultures and a gift for capturing environments and she catches the dark side of Tijuana with a scary exactness. Bradley's parallel struggle with her manic-depression, a source of interest and tension in "Child of Silence" and "Strawgirl" is less in evidence this time. When stressed, Bo augments her medication by reciting the names of ships wrecked off Cape Cod.
Lawrence Block, very serious in his Matt Scudder series, is wonderfully funny in his chronicles of the burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. He launched Bernie 18 years ago in BURGLARS CAN'T BE CHOOSERS (a terrific title), which has now been reissued (Dutton: $19.95; 252 pp.), and not a moment too soon.
Having a burglar for a hero is tricky, to say the least. Is he a bad good guy or a good bad guy, and does crime pay or doesn't it? (Several titles later, Bernie is actually running a used bookstore, Sue Grafton a specialty, and he only unlimbers the old skills in more or less good causes.) Block maneuvers around these moral S-curves with great agility.
In his first outing, all Bernie had to do was enter an apartment (without breaking), remove a well-described box from a desk and scram. The box wasn't there, but a pair of cops showed up before Bernie could tiptoe away. When one of the cops finds a fresh corpse on the premises, Bernie does flee, hotly pursued.
It's an irresistible setup and Bernie has indeed been set up, but by whom and why and what is to be done? Learning all this from Block's effortless first-person narrative and zippy dialogue is as pleasing as escapist fare ever gets.
Edna Buchanan has become a Miami attraction to rival Joe Roddie Stadium. Her part-Cuban heroine Britt Montero is an aggressive newspaper reporter, as Buchanan herself has been. In SUITABLE FOR FRAMING (Hyperion: $21.95; 243 pp.), Montero almost meets her match in a demure young assistant in the newspaper's library. She's Trish, newly arrived from the hinterland and eager to be a hotshot crime writer like Britt.
In quick time Trish is beating Britt on stories and Britt is in the slammer, suitably framed. As always, Miami itself, in all its multiple personalities, is a character in the story. But the novel is character-driven in human terms as well--its major and minor figures grappling such matters as sexual obsession, pregnancy and ambition plain and fancy. Buchanan is awfully good.
Police procedurals tend to be good reading wherever the procedures take place. Peter Turnbull's THE KILLING FLOOR (St. Martin's: $18.95; 192 pp.) is set in Glasgow, in Police Division P. Unlike Ed McBain's 87th Precinct tales, with their familiar and sharply distinctive cops, Turnbull's Donoghue, King, Montgomerie & Co. are almost interchangeable, except in matters of rank. It really is the procedures that count, the procedures and the wet, gritty, foggy, socially layered city in which they take place.
A minor car wreck has disclosed a badly decomposed corpse--headless, handless, female--beneath some shrubbery. Forensics (engrossing) make the identification fairly easy. The quest for motive and killers takes long and leads to an old housing scandal.
Turnbull, a longtime social worker in Leeds, writes with special feeling about social workers (hard-pressed or brain-dead, not all heroes) and the calamity of jerry-built housing blocks. The virtues of writing what you know are revealed again in a tight, fast book.
David Martin, whose first novel, "The Crying-Heart Tattoo," was an eccentric but endearing love story, has more recently been composing tales of horror generated by psychological aberrations, and achieving an unusual chill-factor.
His TAP, TAP (Random House: $20; 304 pp.) asks the unnerving question: Are there modern vampires who become vampires because they think they are vampires, and do they thus acquire the all-too-specific tastes of the breed, self-fulfilling thirsts, so to speak? If the answer is no, you could not prove it by Martin, or one reader at least.
Martin's protagonist is a Washeington businessman named Roscoe who grew up poor on a rich people's private island off Florida (a long way from Transylvania). A rich pal from those early days suddenly shows up and announces that he has begun to kill Roscoe's childhood enemies, including those who drove Roscoe's father to suicide.
Peter the old pal has obviously become preposterously loony, but the grisliest lunacies are yet to be discovered, notably his special nourishment needs. His idea is to get Roscoe in such trouble with the law (he's an obvious suspect in the deaths, motive-wise) that he will willingly take off on an endless ocean with Peter on his yacht (a childhood dream they shared in far simpler days).
The book is distinctly not for vegetarians, and we haven't yet met Peter's even loonier brother Richard (long institutionalized) or the hideous porcelain doll that seems to speak for both of them. The mad pursuits cannot easily be summarized, nor an ending that might have amused and certainly been recognized by Evelyn Waugh.
The challenge for an author conjuring up such Grand Guignol goings on is to build a solid foundation of small, mundane details that make the lurid fantasies a little less fantastic than we might wish them to be. Martin succeeds well enough that you are prompted, as with certain films, to cry in the small hours, "It's only a book."