A bug crawled across my arm at 4:57 this morning. Roger Bannister in 1954 couldn’t have gotten across the bedroom any faster. I must have looked like a paunchy, pasty, Saturn V rocket.
Try getting back to sleep after that.
Anyway, with the help of a lot of coffee and refined sugar, I’ll be doing a show today from 12 to 3 p.m. Eastern on our flagship station, WRCT (88.3) and Tube City Online Radio at www.tubecityonline.com/radio.
Don’t forget, WRCT is Carnegie Mellon University’s station, and this is CMU Spring Carnival weekend, so the start of the show may be a little bit delayed due to CMU’s Sweepstakes races — more commonly known as “buggy” — through Schenley Park.
Buggy started out in the 1920s as a fun, “anything goes” race between fraternities and sororities, but the motto of Carnegie Tech has always been “nothing succeeds like excess” and it’s since become a deadly serious competition, with pages and pages of rules, long training sessions for judges, vicious disputes over alleged infractions, and bitter recriminations for years afterwards.
A lot like America, in other words.
In other news, I am very sorry to hear about the passing of Carl Kosak, better known as the mystery writer K.C. Constantine. Kosak wrote almost 20 novels about a fictional Western Pennsylvania town called “Rocksburg,” a thinly veiled version of Greensburg, Pa., with some McKees Rocks thrown in. Most of the novels were centered on the city’s half-Slovak, half-Italian police chief, Mario Balzac, and the characters Balzac encountered in his daily life, including the drunken local criminal defense attorney, Panagios “Mo” Valcanas.
(Valcanas, staggering into the state police barracks on behalf of a client, doffs his hat to the lady civilian sitting at the front desk. “Madam, nice to see a rose amongst the thorns,” he says, then he turns to the state troopers and says, “and nice to see so many thorns.”)
I discovered the books as a teen-ager, browsing in the Bookmobile, thanks to some anonymous librarian at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and I’ve read every one. They perfectly captured small-town life in Western Pennsylvania in the late 20th century and I own every one of them. One of the early out-of-print books I only obtained through the help of Inter-Library Loan while I was in college, and one night, I painstakingly copied every page on a Xerox machine at 10 cents a page. But it was worth it.
Kosak had long kept his identity as “K.C. Constantine” a mystery because he didn’t want to be discovered. He used to sneak into bookstores before they opened and autograph copies of his novels. I’m happy to have a bunch of those autographed copies.
In the mid-1990s, I tracked down his real name with the help of legal records and skip books. (It helped to be working nights at a newspaper, with access to lots of resources that weren’t available to the general public then, and also to be single.) I even got an address, and I thought about writing to him, but decided, nah, better not. (Later, a co-worker at the Tribune-Review, where Kosak also had worked for several years, told me I made the right decision. “He wouldn’t have appreciated it,” she said.)
A few years later, another writer — I think for Pittsburgh City Paper or Pittsburgh Magazine — did the same thing and also, in the end, decided to leave him alone. In about 2000, Constantine agreed to be interviewed on “CBS Sunday Morning,” but with his face obscured.
After numerous websites reported Kosak’s real identity, he finally emerged in 2011 for an event at Mystery Lovers’ Bookshop in Oakmont, looking a lot like I’d always imagined Police Chief Mario Balzac looked, to be honest.
Stephen King was known to be a fan (his novel, “From a Buick 8,” which is being made into a movie, is apparently set in the Mario Balzac universe, because most of it takes place in a Pennsylvania State Police barracks near “Rocksburg”).
News of Kosak’s passing at age 88 was broken by the McKees Rocks Gazette 2.0, after someone spotted his obituary on a funeral home website and wrote a U.S. mail letter to his son. The website also broke the news that Kosak left one last gift for his fans — a final novel, due to be published soon. I don’t know if I’ll be first in line, but I’ll be as close as I can get.
Someone on Facebook asked me which K.C. Constantine books to start with. His last two books were hard reads, but his earlier books were fire. I’d start with “The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes” or “Always a Body to Trade.” He really hit his stride with “A Fix Like This,” and they were all pretty good up until “Blood Mud.”
By the way, even though a notable author was living in Greensburg, and his books were frequently reviewed in the Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, you will search the online archives of his hometown newspaper in vain for mentions of K.C. Constantine or Carl Kosak.
Maybe that’s because in the Mario Balzac novels, one of the minor characters who frequently interfered in the politics of Rocksburg was the publisher of the local newspaper, a cranky eccentric billionaire named “Lyman Stiles Dunne.”
If you’re from Pittsburgh, I’ll bet you can guess who “Lyman Stiles Dunne” was based on.
Taking on the biggest bully in town?
No wonder K.C. Constantine was my kind of guy.