BEING A READER, Crime books

Standing mute before the master of dialogue, K.C. Constantine

Reading K.C. Constantine can make you wonder why you’d bother to write crime stories. Maybe musicians feel that way when they listen to Beethoven or Prince, artists when they look at Rembrandt or Kiefer.

Artists can inspire you to become creative yourself, or remove the incentive by being totally intimidating.

Joni Mitchell made this point obliquely in an interview, talking about short story writers Raymond Carver and Alice Munro. “I’ve been a frustrated short story writer, but whereas Carver makes me think I can write short stories, Munro makes me think I can’t.”

Mitchell’s quote came to mind as I was reading K.C. Constantine’s Upon Some Midnights Clear. Published in 1985, it’s the seventh book in the series featuring Mario Balzic, police chief in the fictitious town of Rocksburg, Pennsylvania.

It’s not necessarily any better than the other books in the series, at least not the 12 I’ve read so far. (Apart from Bottom Liner Blues, which was an uncharacteristic misstep.) However, I hadn’t read one for a while, so I was struck afresh by what a great writer Carl Constantine Kosak really is.

After years of keeping his identity secret, K.C. Constantine has now seemingly been identified beyond doubt. Mr Kosak he may be to his wife and accountant, but to me and a legion of readers he’s Mr Constantine and will remain so.

While his books are nominally police procedurals, plot never comes first in a K.C. Constantine novel. They’re firstly about character, then about social issues. These are the valuable beads threaded together by workmanlike plotlines.

The most impressive single aspect of Constantine’s writing is his supreme mastery of dialogue. K.C. Constantine can have a page or two of dialogue, three people talking, without a single “he said” or anything outside the dialogue to identify the characters. You can tell who’s speaking by what they say and, most impressively, by how they say it. Speech patterns are all Constantine needs to paint a character.

It’s when reading a scene like this that one can despair and threaten to break your quill and overturn your inkwell.

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