Mario Balzic, Serbo-Italian Chief of Police in the coal town of Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, is a man beleaguered by bureaucrats. The police union’s contract has expired, and for the past month, Balzic has been an unwilling participant in negotiation meetings that are going nowhere, largely because of city officials he can’t stand. When the book opens, he has sneaked out of City Hall and sought refuge and relaxation in Muscotti’s, a local tavern.
It’s only June, but Vinnie the bartender shows Balzic that he’s got locally grown tomatoes, and that they were given to him by one Jimmy Romanelli who, as it turns out, is married to a woman Balzic knew when they were kids. Balzic was in his teens and Mary Frances Fiori was a child. Their fathers were both coal miners who often got together to discuss union and other business. Fiori was a widower, so Mario Balzic kept an eye on his young daughter while he and the elder Balzic talked. After his father died, Mario lost contact with Fiori, and is astonished to learn from Vinnie that the man is still alive: “…And he’s a bull. Still works his garden every day, still walks five, six miles every day, cuts his own firewood, cooks, cleans house, takes care of himself.”
Balzic recognizes Jimmy Romanelli’s name, remembering that a State Bureau of Drug Enforcement investigator once mentioned him as a person of interest. Vinnie doesn’t believe it, telling Balzic that Romanelli’s the kind of guy who always has to be right, who’s a good guy when things are going his way, but who blames everyone but himself if things take a turn for the worse. And that they have because when the local mine shut down, he and many others were suddenly out of work. Others found jobs of different sorts or moved to other mining regions of the country. Romanelli did nothing but collect unemployment checks, and now those have run out.
Balzic’s conversation with Vinnie is interrupted several times by phone calls from Mary Frances Romanelli. She’s hysterical because Jimmy hasn’t been home in more than twenty-four hours. Vinnie forces an unwilling Balzic to talk to her, but his own efforts to calm her are as ineffectual as Vinnie’s were. When he finally returns to City Hall, he learns that she has been calling there repeatedly and berating whoever answers for not finding her missing husband. Balzic decides it’s time to pay her a visit and talk to her in person.
I can’t really say anything more about the story without giving everything away because the basic storyline is pretty thin. Despite being billed as “A Mario Balzic Detective Novel,” this is not at all a conventional detective story. In fact, most experienced mystery readers will figure out what happened and who is responsible long before Balzic does. The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes is more than anything a novel of character, the author delineating and differentiating his cast of blue collar Americans through a heavy use of dialogue.
Balzic, through whose third-person point-of-view events are filtered, is a generally likeable character—intelligent, intuitive, tough, stubborn, humorous, sensitive, and at times irascible. If I have one complaint about him, it’s that a couple of times he uses the N-word. This is the fifth book in the series, but the first I’ve ever read, so I can’t determine whether he’s actually a racist, whether epithets of this sort are just part of the culture of Rocksburg, or if he’s trying to persuade certain interlocutors that he’s “one of them.”
As I said earlier, the story itself is not a complex, convoluted one, and for some readers will prove to be thoroughly predictable. Despite that, and because of strong characterizations achieved primarily through a masterly use of dialogue, The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes should appeal to the men and women who like fast compelling reads.
© 2011 Barry Ergang
A Derringer Award-winner, Barry Ergang’s fiction, poetry and non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. Some of his work is available at Smashwords and Amazon. His website is http://www.writetrack.yolasite.com/.