I’m rereading the great series of Mario Balzic crime novels by K.C. Constantine. He was never as well known as he should have been, and mostly forgotten now, but damn, he’s good. They’re mysteries, but that’s just one part of the books, which are social histories of working class Pennsylvania from the seventies on through the decline of the mines and mills.
Here’s a quote from The Blank Page (1974) the third in the series. It’s after two in the morning, and Balzic, chief of police in Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, can’t take dealing with the state police any more, so he heads to Muscotti’s for a drink. Father Marazzo is there; he’s done playing poker for the night. They have beers.
“I was around all them state guys and I was looking at their uniforms, the color, and the words that kept coming into my head were shale and slate. Coal miners’ words. And—ah, this is a load. You don’t want to hear this.”
“Go ahead and say it. Get it out”
“It’s not important. Doesn’t matter a damn to anybody.”
“All right,” said the priest. “I won’t coax you.”
Balzic stared at his beer, running his finger up and down the side of the glass. “We found a girl tonight, Father. Up in the Summer house. Been dead since last Wednesday. Strangled. And I’m really involved with that since maybe ten, ten-thirty, and all of a sudden, I can’t stand to be in the same room with state guys. And one of them is a very good friend of mine. And you know why?”
The priest shook his head.
“My father is buried in Edna Number Two. Summer’s mine.”
“Your father?” the priest said. “You never said anything about that before. I don’t know why that surprises me, but it does.”
“I was three years old. I have no memory of him at all. None. I mean, except what my mother told me. And tonight, just being there, it’s funny how I managed to put that out of my head until three or four hours later when I find myself in a room with four state guys … you know, my mother had a real fit when I told her I was going to be a cop. She wouldn’t talk to me for two or three days. And I couldn’t understand it. I kept asking her what was so bad about being a cop, and she wouldn’t say a word. And when she did finally decide to talk to me again, the first thing she said—and I’ll never forget it—she said, ‘If your father was here, he’d spit in your face and throw you out.’ The look on her face, God …”
“Did he hate cops that much?”
“He was a miner, Father, and all he knew when he was in the mines was the Iron and Coal Police, the Pinkertons, and the Pennsylvania Constabulary. The Pennsylvania Constabulary became the state police. You know what the miners used to call them? The Black Cossacks. I thought my mother was exaggerating, but I did a lot of reading about it in the big Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. There’s another joke for you. I had to read about it in a library set up by one of the most heartless bastards who ever lived. But I found it, pictures and all. You ought to read about that time in this part of the state, Father. It’s unbelievable.”
The dialogue in these books is some of the best I’ve ever read. I was struck by this bit because of the mention of the Pinkertons, Carnegie and libraries, but no matter if Balzic’s talking to his mother, his wife, other cops, Mo Valcanas the drunken lawyer, local politicians, suspects, witnesses, anybody, he’s listening closely, sometimes speaking thoughtfully, and the conversation will be interesting. People take time to tell stories. Sometimes they break out into monologues. All through, Mario Balzic is very humane and very human.