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Criminal Pursuits

February 12, 1995|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

The identity of K.C. Constantine, said to be the pseudonym of a small-city Pennsylvania newspaperman, remains a well-kept secret. What is no secret is that he is a superb writer and social chronicler, whose 11 novels about Police Chief Mario Balzic of a small Pennsylvania city called Rocksburg constitute a unique body of work.

The series began 23 years ago with "The Rocksburg Railroad Murders." Now, with CRANKS AND SHADOWS (Mysterious Press: $19.95; 314 pp.), the series is evidently ending. The volatile half-Italian, half-Hungarian Balzic has hit retirement age; his wife is pressuring him about Florida. Rocksburg has become an economic wasteland, thanks to the recession and the flight of its major industries. Worse yet, the mayor has told Balzic to cut three officers from his already hard-pressed and underpaid force.

But crime, or social disorder, marches on. An irascible elder holds his wife hostage and complains of uniformed men stalking him. True enough, a paramilitary militia has formed, brandishing automatic rifles and doing maneuvers in the local countryside, sneering at Balzic because they have some city and county officials, even one of Balzic's own men, with them.

Constantine stirs this bitter brew with economy and skill, and glints of humor. Yet the incidents and confrontations are simply augmentations of his portrait of this profane, dead-honest, beleaguered, unhappy good man. There are, as in the previous novel, "Bottom Liner Blues," long, long conversations of tape recorder accuracy which, like transcripts, make their effects by simple accumulation.

No one since John O'Hara has dissected class distinctions in a Pennsylvania community with such sensitivity and pinpoint accuracy--and such implicit scorn for power players quite devoid of Balzic's dogged sense of honor. It is melancholy to think we have seen, or read, the last of Balzic, but he has earned some time in the sun and, who knows, maybe Florida will find it needs him.

Amanda Cross is another pseudonym, which has, however, never really concealed Carolyn G. Heilbrun, a professor emeritus from Columbia. Her Kate Fansler is also an eastern university professor of English with a side gift for solving mysteries. But always and increasingly Fansler has been the author's indignant spokesperson on the small but deadly wars within academia and most especially on the struggle of women for anything like equal footing in a sexist male environment.

The latest Kate Fansler adventure, AN IMPERFECT SPY (Ballantine: $20; 240 pp.), is only narrowly a mystery but it is, as its title suggests, a homage to John LeCarr, and there are quotes from his work atop each chapter.

Cross introduces a fascinating character at the start, a woman named Harriet who is a LeCarr worshiper and who appears to be adopting the tactics of George Smiley, for reasons not immediately clear. She works at a dubious law school where the anti-feminine bias is potent, unrelenting and--enter the mystery--despicable in its workings. Fansler and her lawyer husband Reed are both spending a term as visiting teachers at the school, and what Kate concludes at last is that the anti-feminism is also very right-wing.

The Cross portrait of the school is, of course, devastating and funny in equal dosages and is manifestly the object of the exercise. Harriet the scheming secretary re-emerges to pull the plot together and, with the help of Kate and her husband, to correct an injustice.

The dialogue is, as always, elegant and polished, but does not conceal a steely intelligence at work.

Abigail Padgett, the San Diego social worker who writes about Bo Bradley, a San Diego investigator of child abuse cases, sailed handsomely over the hurdle of a second novel. Her third, TURTLE BABY (Mysterious Press: $19.95; 278 pp.), is ambitious, eventful, atmospheric and toned with the compassion that Padgett has made a trademark.

Little Turtle is the name of an infant, of Mayan descent, who has been poisoned, apparently deliberately, with a toxic herb. Why kill a baby? The mother is a former prostitute just making a new start as a singer in Tijuana, trying to raise the child in hard circumstances. She has a manager, a boyfriend, a wacko husband who has jumped prison in Louisiana and is heading west.

Padgett has a feeling for Indian cultures and a gift for capturing environments and she catches the dark side of Tijuana with a scary exactness. Bradley's parallel struggle with her manic-depression, a source of interest and tension in "Child of Silence" and "Strawgirl" is less in evidence this time. When stressed, Bo augments her medication by reciting the names of ships wrecked off Cape Cod.

Lawrence Block, very serious in his Matt Scudder series, is wonderfully funny in his chronicles of the burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. He launched Bernie 18 years ago in BURGLARS CAN'T BE CHOOSERS (a terrific title), which has now been reissued (Dutton: $19.95; 252 pp.), and not a moment too soon.

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