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In Always a Body to Trade (1983), Constantine made the gritty atmosphere and dark comedy far more important than the central murder-mystery investigated by dour Nario Balzic, hard-drinking police chief of Rocksburg, Pa. This time he goes even further in that direction: Balzic's new outing has no murder, no central plot whatsoever--just a clutch of minor, grubbily colorful, overlapping subplots. First there's the alleged mugging of nasty, poor Mrs. Garbin, who claims that ""this nigger jumped out of a car and hit me in the head and face twice and took my money"" ($700 in supposed savings); but, while Mrs. G.'s plight stirs local do-gooders (including veteran muckraker Mary Hart, Balzic's nemesis), the police chief shrewdly suspects--and eventually proves--that the whole matter is a pathetic seam. Meanwhile, Balzic must also deal with huge Billy Lum, violent son of Rocksburg's black garbage-collection tycoon, who is often arrested yet rarely convicted. (Offensive braggart Billy ultimately gets rough justice--partial castration--from local racists.) Meanwhile, too, there's a raucous police-station protest by Vietnam vets. And, as Christmas approaches, Balzic has private turmoil to brood on as well: the terminal illness of an old chum, newspaper editor Tom Murray; and the increasing disaffection of the neglected Balzic family--especially wife Ruthie. Constantine's raunchy dialect-comedy occasionally crosses over the line from brio to mere shtick. The sentimentality beneath Balzic's laconic, wry, boozy facade pokes through a bit more than necessary. But, with a vivid parade of tacky characters (the fatuous mayor, a desperate ambulance-chaser) and a grimy panorama of unlovely Rocksburg settings (bars, hospitals, more bars), this is steady entertainment for fans of down-and-dirty local color--if not for mystery-lovers.

Pub Date: Sept. 28th, 1985
Publisher: Godine