Cops for our times: K.C. Constantine and Barbara D’Amato

Brushback by K.C. Constantine
Mysterious (first), 1998

Good Cop, Bad Cop by Barbara D’Amato
Forge (first), 1998

The present febrile atmosphere may have long-term effects, such as limiting the appetite for public life to all but the most ego-enthralled office-seekers. In the end, this could be one of those periods in history remembered more for the ferocity of their prosecutions than for the severity of their crimes. Few such eras are remembered fondly.

Joe Klein, The New Yorker, February 2, 1998

The protagonists of these compelling new mysteries are office-holders, rather than office-seekers, but the impulse to hold a position — or at least not to leave it unwillingly or ignominiously — is a powerful individual drive. One shared theme of these two outstanding books is that having a significant position gives structure to the lives of their two heroes: Police Superintendent Nick Bertolucci of Chicago (Good Cop, Bad Cop) and acting police chief Ruggiero “Rugs” Carlucci of Rocksburg, Pennsylvania (Brushback). And heroes they are, in a world and time where public life is unsafe, where the pack mentality inflames those who circle a leader, snarling like coyotes, laughing like hyenas. They work tirelessly, intelligently and with humor; they have a care for others; and they can control impulses to prevent their becoming compulsions. They don’t have heroic stature or background, and one of them has a secret in his past, but they’re heroes. These are timely books, and their commonalties must have been evoked by the little crises of our times. These are stories about the effect of careers on families, about publicity and secrecy, about supporting and undermining colleagues, about harmonious and harmful working relationships.

The balance — or imbalance — between a career in law enforcement and family life has long been a theme in Constantine’s novels. In Family Values, the precursor to Brushback, Mario Balzic, though retired, is still the protagonist, and his marriage remains comforting, irritating, baffling, combative and blessed. Brushback is billed as “a Rocksburg novel:” one chief leaves but the town remains, and crime remains also. Balzic’s temporarily appointed successor, afflicted by a crazed mother, is barely able to pursue, or be pursued by, a beautiful dark-haired woman whom we’ll see again. (“And if he hadn’t known it before, he knew it now. He was lost. For as long as time would allow.”) In Good Cop, Bad Cop, Nick Bertolucci, whose brother is also on the force, is a widower, and reasonably content to be single.

And if the department had become his wife and child, he could face that. God knew it had all the elements. It was at one time or another and in one person or another childish, nagging, rewarding, self-sacrificing, abrasive, courageous, annoying, frustrating, enraging and elevating. And involving. It took up all his life. And much of his love.

Both books reflect, and reflect upon, growing cultural diversity among professional colleagues. Law enforcement as a career is part of the traditional American dream — important, respected work where success is based on merit. Because the profession is highly visible, minority involvement is loudly and publicly encouraged. In the course of telling fascinating tales, Constantine and D’Amato convey the important idea that, though the realities are different from dreams or rhetoric, the importance of the work of those whose role it is to protect and serve is undiminished and untarnished.

For series readers, the most important features of both books is that we can be sure — almost sure — that the police officers who are series characters — D’Amato’s Suze Figueroa and Constantine’s Rugs Carlucci — will return in future books, and that for the present, each tells a fascinating story in compelling style.

Brushback takes its title from the sobriquet of the first victim: Bobby “Brushback” Blasco, locally famed as a hometown boy who made good in a brief major league pitching career, well-known to the police as a chronic wife abuser, is found dead in an alley, the murder weapon tossed in a garbage can a few feet away.

It was a Ted Williams model Louisville Slugger baseball bat, streaked with blood down to the handle. There were only two spaces, about the width of two hands, about four or five inches up the handle that were relatively free of blood. Carlucci could see flesh and hair matted to the barrel of the bat above the trademark

Among ex-wives and girlfriends, mobsters, fellow former athletes, Blasco was as widely hated as a man could be. Rumor had it that his major league career was ended after he maimed one too many batters with a near-lethal pitch and his own teammates broke his arm. In the hands of a master storyteller, the wealth of  motives enriches the plot with never a moment of tediousness or a fragment of irrelevance; then a terrifyingly satisfactory solution is followed by a chilling twist.

Good Cop, Bad Cop is illuminatingly titled; the focus is on brothers Nick and Aldo, a contrast between astute success and sullen failure, aging men who were young policemen during the Black Panther riots at the end of Chicago’s turbulent 60’s, bitterly divided by a shared childhood. Their story is a subtle reminder that it is an individual’s response to life events, rather than simply those events, that determine the future.

Bertolucci had a mental flashback of the moment — he must have been eight or nine — when he realized for the first time that adults didn’t know what they were doing. Just like kids, only they faked it better. There was something his parents were discussing, something they were going to buy, maybe even something as important as a car. And despite the fact that his father was extolling whatever it was, Nick knew, knew from the tone of his voice, that he was just guessing and hoping he’d be right.

After this epiphany, Nick saw the world with new eyes. At school the next day, he could see for himself that the teachers were guessing half the time how to handle the kids. Or even about some of the material they taught. Just guessing. The janitor didn’t really know how to fix the toilet; it overflowed again three hours later. The whole huge adult world was just winging it.

It scared him at first, as if he’d been riding in a car and looked up and there was no driver. After a couple of days, though, he got used to it and it helped him. He got to thinking his guess was as good as anybody’s. And as he learned things, he figured if he gained knowledge and relied on his own judgment, he’d be as good as anybody.

Resemblances between the novels extend to characters’ names — La luce: light; luccicare: to glitter, to shine, to glare, to twinkle, to sparkle, to gleam;  luccichio: glitter (noun); luccicone: large tear-drop. The authors’ fortuitous choices evoke ideas of light that illumines, and tears that gleam. In the end, Constantine and D’Amato answer our questions — will Bertolucci’s career continue until it’s time for an honorable retirement? will Carlucci’s work as acting chief be followed by appointment as chief? — with (wait and see) an upbeat yes or a sobering no. But beyond an answer to questions, beyond enthralling stories, these novels offer a gift that literature as well as history can provide: accounts of good people in bad times. 

— Jeanne M. Jacobson

Originally published in Issue # 152 – January/February 1998

Brushback by K.C. Constantine

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Good Cop, Bad Cop by Barbara D’Amato

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