Reclusive author K.C. Constantine reveals himself at mystery fest

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The pseudonymous K.C. Constantine signed the first live autograph of his long writing career Monday and said, "That didn't hurt too much."

He grinned.

Pretty soon there were other fans lined up awaiting to get their own signatures from the creator of the popular and long-running mystery series featuring Mario Balzic, police chief of the fictional town of Rocksburg, Pa.

The occasion was the 16th annual Festival of Mystery held at the Greek Orthodox Church in Oakmont by the Mystery Lovers Bookshop, and it marked the first public appearance by Mr. Constantine in a nearly 40-year career. He signed previously published works -- he hasn't published a novel in nearly a decade -- and a short story in "Pittsburgh Noir," a new collection by local authors.

The writer had promised to do appearances for the store before, co-owner Mary Alice Gorman said, but always backed out. So fierce was his desire for anonymity that his book contracts forbade publishers to reveal his identity. He refused book tours and other marketing events that required public appearances.

So appearing Monday was a big deal. He not only gave an interview; he had his photo taken. When asked his real name, he replied that it was available and correct on the Internet. For the record, it's Carl Constantine Kosak. A McKees Rocks native, he lives in Greensburg and is 76.

Why was he so reclusive all these years?

"Wish I could remember," he joked.

Later, however, Mr. Constantine got serious.

"I did it to protect my family," he said. "[But] nobody stalked me. Nobody tracked me down. I decided it was ridiculous to keep up this charade."

The festival became his coming-out party.

Asked what he's been working on over the past years, he said, "stuff that nobody wants to buy, even people who had published other stuff. It's very disappointing."

Balzic is a literary Colombo, using interviews, insight and intuition to solve crimes.

What editors and publishers want now, Mr. Constantine said, are "cops who solve crimes with very high-tech, CSI kind of stuff. ...

"I think that's b.s."

His new short story, "When Johnny Came Shuffling Home," is a dark tale about a World War II veteran named Johnny Giumba assigned to Graves Registration. "They were the people who picked up the pieces and put a dog tag between their teeth," Mr. Constantine said. "He did it until he couldn't do it anymore, and then he just cracked."

The character is based on a veteran Mr. Constantine knew as a kid who would just sit on a bench by his parents' house and not say a word. "One day he was just gone," the author said, saying he found out years later about the man's war assignment.

"I'm sure I made up a lot about him because I didn't know much about him," he said.

Although the doors didn't open until 4 p.m., the 300 to 400 mystery fans expected began lining up at 12:30 p.m., occasionally ducking raindrops, for an event that drew some 50 authors. Readers came from as far as Connecticut and Michigan, and writers came from Canada and across the United States.

Among the writers was Canadian Louise Penny, whose latest novel, "Bury Your Dead," was awarded the Agatha for Best Novel at this year's Malice domestic convention over the weekend in Bethesda, Md. Ms. Penny, author of the best-selling Chief Inspector Gamache books, attended the festival about three years ago and said she had so much fun she "begged" to return.

Pohla Smith: or 412-263-1228.


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