I read through the first ten Mario Balzic novels by K.C. Constantine consecutively, not knowing that I had stopped short of the final book in the series, "Cranks and Shadows." The end of the road for Mario Balzic is a bittersweet conclusion, although over the course of the last few novels I had found myself in total agreement with his wife Ruth that he needs to pay more attention to her and learn to stop being totally consumed by his job as Police Chief of Rocksburg, Pennsylvania. For ten books Balzic has stubbornly avoided doing either and his Achilles heel has been that as good as he is at wearing people done through intense conversations, his wife can turn the tables on him in that particular arena. The question is whether Balzis is going to go out with a bang or with a whimper.
Rockburg is seeing hard times. Already the Sanitation Department, the city's vehicle mechanics, its plumber, and two carpenters have been replaced by private contractors. It has been eight years since Balzic has hired any new officers for the Police Department or that his men have seen a promotion. Now Mayor Kenny Strohn has told Balzic to layoff five officers, leaving him but twenty-five members to police an economically depressed city of 15,000. As if that was not bad enough, Balzic is stunned to discover a small group of heavily armed, camouflaged commandos rappelling out of a blue-and-white helicopter. The chief cannot get any answers out of these para-military figures, which means he is going to start asking hard questions. When he learns what is going on in his town and discovers that not everybody has the same idea of public service that has been the rock upon which Balzic has built his career, he realizes it is time to reconsider what is left of his life.
The first part of "Cranks and Shadows" was a bit of rough going for me because it seemed that Balzic was no longer raging against the injustice of the world around him but had been reduced to ranting. His conversations, always the strong point of these novels and the way by which he does his job, were becoming decidedly one sided and it was becoming commonplace for people to tell Balzic they were not telling him things he should probably know because they did not want to get into it with him. But then there is a point in the story where everything changes and Balzic does more listening to Ruth and engages in more introspective examinations of his life. Constantine is setting up not only his character for the end of the road, but his readers as well.
The ending to "Cranks and Shadows" is not particularly satisfying, but that presupposes that a "happy" ending is possible in Balzic's world of Rocksburg in the Reagan-Bush eighties where the end of revenue sharing changed everything for local governments. Constantine cannot be faulted for providing a realistic conclusion to Balzic's career and it is difficult not to agree that there is an appropriateness to the way the story ends given the rocky road the character has traveled. After all, to quote my old college professor, nobody promised fair. These eleven Mario Balzic novels, the first half of which are more traditional mystery books, remains a superb character study of irascible hero and the particular region he calls home. I realize this is not Constantine's last novel and I will be interesting to see what it is like to read one his novels that is not about Mario Balzic.