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Carl Kosak’s last story…One final nail-biter by Rocksburg crime novelist K. C. Constantine

Copyright 2023 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Reprinted with permission. The mysterious K.C. Constantine began publishing crime novels in 1972. This photo by John Heller of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was taken in 2011 during the author’s first public appearance at a Festival of Mystery event in Oakmont, Pa.

By Elizabeth Perry

A McKees Rocks mystery writer whose identity was a secret for decades has died.

Carl Kosak, more widely known by his pseudonym K.C. Constantine, created a fictionalized hybrid of McKees Rocks and Greensburg called Rocksburg in his series of novels featuring the character Mario Balzic.

“My father was a very proud Marine and he was very proud to be from McKees Rocks. He was from the Bottoms. He was very proud to be from the Bottoms,” Chris Kosak, his son, said.

Kosak died on March 23 in Greensburg at the age of 88, leaving behind 17 published books from 1972’s “The Rocksburg Railroad Murders,” to 2002’s “Saving Room for Dessert,” and another novel set to be released early next year.

“He was one of the great novelists in America. His books were about the characters in his town, it was a major character,” said Otto Penzler, founder of New York City-based Mysterious Press.

Penzler published 11 of Carl’s books, starting with “Joey’s Case,” in 1988 which was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award. Penzler said Carl hadn’t submitted a new novel in about 20 years, when about 18 months ago a manuscript showed up in the mail, “out of the blue.”

“It came in paper which is something I haven’t seen in 10 years,” Penzler said.

Chris said as brilliant as his father was with writing, he wasn’t adept with new technology.

“I bought him a laptop and installed it for him. Everything was backed up to my cloud drive, I was his first reader, and helped navigate all his problems with Microsoft,” Chris said. “We finished his last book.”

Penzler said Kosak’s book went through several revisions back and forth between editors and author. The story was completed and Mysterious Press offered Kosak a contract. The Monday before Kosak died, he got a deposit for the book, Chris said.

“I am very sad he did not get to see the book published,” Penzler said.

A storied life

Carl Kosak was born in McKees Rocks in 1934 to parents Constantine Kosak and Helen Pravlochak Kosak. Carl Kosak would take his father’s first name as a pen name later in life.

Constantine Kosak was an immigrant; though the country he came from was listed as Russia, Poland, Croatia and Latvia on various legal documents, Chris believes his grandfather was from Vilna, which is now part of Latvia. Constantine Kosak was a founding member of the Pittsburgh Artist’s Guild and worked extensively with the Kaufmann family on a variety of projects including Falling Water and painted billboards for the famous department store.

Constantine Kosak also painted murals in Russian Orthodox Churches in McKees Rocks and Clairton.

“My grandfather stopped going to church when he walked into the McKees Rocks church and saw someone was painting over it. He never went in again,” Chris Kosak said.

While at Stowe Township High School, Carl showed an early talent for baseball and became a catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates during batting practice. According to family lore, Carl would have been signed by the Pirates on graduation day, but he was struck down with appendicitis. Chris has a newspaper clipping of his father being presented with his diploma while lying in bed at Shadyside Hospital.

Carl instead signed with the Orioles after graduation and then bounced around Single, Double and Triple-A leagues in Georgia and Tennessee before coming back to Pennsylvania to play semi-pro ball and attend Westminster College.

He got into some trouble with the law and while in front of a judge, he was given a choice to go to jail or join the Marine Corps, Chris said. While Carl was in the service, he played baseball in the Marines, too.

“Apparently back then that was not very easy to do,” Chris said.

Marine Corps. portrait of Carl Kosak.

While Carl was a Marine, he discovered author Eric Hoffer. Carl was so taken with Hoffer’s book, “True Believer,” Chris said he literally copied it word for word on a yellow legal pad, trying to figure out why each sentence or piece of punctuation worked so effectively. His father used to say that after copying the whole book, he knew how to write.

“So he started writing after he got out of the Marine Corps, but no college would take him,” Chris said. The family joke went that Carl was accepted back to Westminster College on “double secret probation” like John Belushi in “Animal House.” That’s where Carl met his wife Linda Tweedy, who family friend Beth Yadamec describes as the “love of his life.”

“He adored my mother, and he was heartbroken when she died, I’m honestly surprised he lived five years without her,” Chris said.

After marrying Tweedy, Carl was accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at University of Iowa.

“All of his professors said to him he wrote more than anyone in the class,” Chris said.

The couple ran out of money a year into the two-year program and moved back to Pennsylvania, but Carl maintained relationships with some of his professors there. While his wife taught school, Carl worked construction.

One day Carl was at a newsstand and asked the proprietor about the rack of mystery stories on display. Did she sell a lot of them? She responded that she could barely keep the rack stocked. Chris said his dad walked out of the newsstand, took two right turns and then saw the Greensburg Train Station.

That was enough inspiration to produce the “Rocksburg Train Murders,” his first Mario Balzic novel which was written in 1972. Later, it was described by the New York Times as “one of the best first crime novels of the decade.”

Mystery author

Carl went on to teach at Seton Hill College for four years and then became a proofreader with the Tribune-Review in Greensburg. All the while, he continued to produce Rocksburg novels and steadfastly refused to reveal his identity. Yadamec’s father worked with Carl at the Tribune-Review, and Kosak encouraged her interest in writing.

Her family was one of the few that knew Carl Kosak was really K.C. Constantine.

“To have this knowledge of a local author who people actually heard of, and not be able to talk about it killed me,” Yadamec said.

Chris thought his father’s intense sense of privacy hurt his notoriety and stemmed from acute shyness. Carl often struggled to talk with people. However, that social awkwardness could be a secret strength.

“When people know you’re a writer and you show up somewhere they pose for you. That’s the worst thing you can have happen to you as a writer is have people pose instead of being authentic,” Chris said.

Yadamec recalled going to a party at the Kosak house and watching Carl standing by the fireplace watching everyone else.

“He didn't speak to anybody but he didn't miss a trick,” Yadamec said.

For Christmas one year, Carl gave Yadamec a book with the inscription, “During this time of year it’s always good to remember Old Anonymous who said if you can’t be thankful for what you receive, be thankful for what you escape. Happy Holidays, K.C. Constantine.”

“That was him. Old Anonymous,” Yadamec said.

When Yadamec graduated from college with a degree in English, Carl gave her a copy of “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. Inscribed inside was: “To Beth, This book does not have all the answers to all the questions about grammar but there is no better place to start looking for them.”

The style guide seemed to be important to Carl. Chris said his dad left him two books in particular; “The Elements of Style” that Carl used in college and “Zen and the Art of Archery.”

“The original Strunk and White he used at college. It was sitting exactly where he told me it would be, waiting for me,” Chris said.

In 2011, Carl Kosak finally went public with his identity during the Festival of Mystery held at the Greek Orthodox Church in Oakmont by the Mystery Lovers Bookshop.

Kosak had a friendship with the former co-owner of the bookshop Mary Alice Gorman and had previously canceled public appearances at the shop numerous times, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Pohla Smith.

Chris said there was no great reason for his dad to finally reveal his identity; his dad finally stopped hiding because he was in his 70s and didn’t care what people thought anymore.

Final chapter

The final book by K.C. Constantine is scheduled to be released Feb. 24, but Penzler said that could change as the date draws nearer. The name of the last story is still up for debate, too.

“The title he wrote was ‘Trying to Get Past This,’ and nobody at Mysterious Press liked it, and they came up with ‘Another Day’s Pain,’” Chris said.

The title ‘Another Day’s Pain,” made Carl angry because it was so good and he wasn’t the one who’d thought of it. Out of spite, Chris said his dad didn’t want to use it, and he passed away before he could make a final decision. In typical K.C. Constantine fashion, Chris said his dad had used an expletive to describe how good the title was.

Chris acknowledges that the coarse language in his father’s books was off-putting to some readers. “My mother’s father was appalled by all the cursing in the books,” Chris said.

Though Carl Kosak had a gruff exterior and could be short, Chris said he had an eye for beauty and could be “swept away by it.”

“There was something about that appreciation of beauty especially in today’s world when everyone lives on the surface. There was a depth to my father, and that depth came through in his writing. If you missed that, you missed who he was,” Chris said.


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