Commentary
11:00 am
Fri June 24, 2011

Uncommon Mystery - The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes

Murray, KY – Nowadays, you can get a ripe tomato any time of year, but if you're growing tomatoes in your backyard or have a particular fondness for them, you may be busy preparing for the height of their growing season in a few weeks. Ask any connoisseur and the difference in taste is noticeable. Such is the case, anyway, for the fictional coal-mining town of Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, in the uncommon mystery "The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes, by K.C. Constantine. Mystery connoisseur Michael Cohen reviews this book, in which a series of murders are tied to baskets of tomatoes mysteriously ripening out of season.

K. C. Constantine, The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes (David R. Godine, 1982)

Mario Balzic is Chief of the Rockford Police Department. This little western Pennsylvania town used to house a big bituminous coal mine, and the mine's closure has caused plenty of problems for the residents, or in some cases, like that of Jimmy Romanelli, the loss of work has revealed character flaws that are going to end in tragedy. When Jimmy goes missing, his wife Frances starts calling Chief Mario every couple of hours.

It's a largely working class town with many first-generation immigrants among the older population, and in the mixture of Greek and Italian and Eastern European and other groups, Mario feels at home. He is half Italian and half Serb; moreover his father was a mine union organizer. But he begins this investigation with a guilty conscience, because Frances Romanelli's father and Jimmy's father-in-law is Mario's own father's old friend, Mike Fiori. Fiori was the mine organizer most feared in the old days by the mine owners, and Mario hasn't visited Fiori since his father died.

Mario, like his father before him, thinks something might be learned from Mike Fiori's inflexible attitudes about union negotiation and his complete confidence in himself. Mario is engaged in negotiations, along with police union representatives, the mayor, and a particularly unpleasant city councilman, about the new police contract. And the chief has his father's trait of seeing all sides in a dispute. This makes him a bad negotiator, though it also makes him a good coach of his young patrolmen at handling dangerous domestic disturbances. Unfortunately, the present case turns out to be a domestic disturbance that's past handling.

I had heard of this book before I picked it up and began reading it, but I was not aware at the time what a favorite of the critics it is. It shows up on several lists of best mysteries of the twentieth century, among them the one compiled by members of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Critics compare the depiction of social class in Constantine to the books of John O'Hara. They say his handling of dialect and dialogue hasn't been seen since the great crime writer George V. Higgins. Sometimes his recreation of milieu gets mentioned as reminiscent of The Sopranos, and his concentration on the workings of his main character's mind reminds others of the Maigret books of Georges Simenon.

K. C. Constantine is actually Carl Constantine Kosak, a writer about whose personal life we know little because he has the sense of privacy of a J. D. Salinger. We do know that between 1972 and 2002 he wrote seventeen books about Chief Mario and the other members of the Rocksburg Police Department, and that The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes is the fifth in that series. I think you'll like it.

The Man who Liked Slow Tomatoes by K.C. Constantine was first published by David R. Godine in 1982. Michael Cohen is Professor Emeritus at Murray State University.

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