Penzler Pick, April 2000: The texture of America runs through the novels of the pseudonymous K.C. Constantine, whose original tales of police chief Mario Balzic and the faded industrial reality of his fictional hometown, Rocksburg, Pa., have given way to cases featuring a younger cop, "Rugs" Carlucci, in the same setting. Both men are supremely decent public citizens performing an almost thankless job, tireless soldiers in not just a perpetual battle against law-breakers but also ongoing skirmishes of class warfare against which their skills unfortunately count for less.
As Constantine fans (and I am one of long standing) already know, the mystery plot is never the reason to come to this series. While the plots are fine, and usually compelling, it is because of the often achingly alive characterizations, the glimpses into soul and spirit, that one reads this writer. His blue-collar milieu offers a variant on the "down these mean streets" exhortation that Raymond Chandler could never have envisioned. While Chandler meant the detective in the crime story should be a figure not involved in the artificial precincts of ersatz English manor houses and rural vicarages, he certainly never was imagining a hero like Ruggiero Carlucci, struggling to solve a murder while locked in daily conflict with the increasingly demented mother he lives with. Rugs--neither martyr nor saint, but exhibiting aspects of both--is simply a man who's trying to do not just his job but also his duty as a son. In Grievance, Mrs. Ruggiero is now herself engaging in mayhem, with Rugs twice in need of hospital attention as a result of her uncontrollable violent impulses.
There is, as well, an actual murder case demanding Rugs's official attention: the magnate who had allowed his steel plant to be closed, shattering hundreds of local lives, has been found shot to death. There are so many suspects who would have been happy to see him dead that Rugs isn't able to eliminate anyone. It's all in a day's work, even if it means brushing up against the kind of personal pain with which the suffering Rugs is all too familiar. Grievance is pure Constantine, and that's saying plenty of praise in just two words as he somehow remains below the radar of even sophisticated mystery readers as the best unknown crime writer in America. --Otto Penzler