For some 30 years, author K.C. Constantine has chronicled the adventures of police detective Mario Balzic in the fictional rust-belt city of Rocksburg. In Saving Room for Dessert (Mysterious Press, $23.95, 256 pages, ISBN 0892967633), however, Balzic is but a minor player. The stars are three beat officers with very different backgrounds: one is an African American grappling with some serious ex-wife issues, one a somewhat overweight young fellow who can't abide wearing his bullet-proof vest, and one a short-timer counting the days until retirement. It is a recipe for calamity as the three answer a call to "the Flats," Rocksburg's community of chronically unemployed steel workers.

Constantine's Rocksburg novels are much more than standard police procedurals; in fact, the crime story is often secondary to the goings-on in the lives of the officers: issues of love, race, class and the disappointments of living in a dying town. With the closing of the steel mills, Rocksburg is in a state of collapse, its tax structure unable to keep up with the needs of its residents. Depression is the order of the day, both clinical and economic.

Constantine has been described as "one of the best-kept secrets in American fiction," and he gives every indication that he likes it that way: no interviews, no pictures, even his name is a pseudonym. Still, this fine writer deserves a much greater degree of recognition. He has an ear for dialogue that equals the masters, George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard, and a sense of place without rival in contemporary detective novels.

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