BOOK REVIEW: BACK ON MURDER
Back On Murder
by J. Mark Bertrand
Bethany House, $14.99
I’ve long been skeptical of “Christian” fiction, which is why I usually avoid reading it. It’s something one wants to like, but can’t quite bring oneself to. Much like Christian pop music, Christian fiction is often so forced, so self-consciously holy that it can be hard to take. This is especially disappointing since the great fiction of Western civilization has always been Christian in the best sense of the word. The grand themes of the Christian story informed and undergirded it. What one desires first and foremost from Christian fiction is that it be good fiction with all the fundamentals of quality writing.
With this somewhat bleak background of opinion, I approached new author J. Mark Bertrand’s first solo novel Back On Murder (his co-authored Beguiled was released earlier this year). Bertrand’s self-appointed task is not simply to write a Christian mystery, but to write a Christian hardboiled mystery (think Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler). This may seem like a disaster in the making except that Bertrand gets it. He has not set out to write a “Christian mystery” at all, but rather a hardboiled mystery that is informed by the great themes of the Christian story. Rather than dropping the Acme anvil of Christianity on the reader’s head, Bertrand has sought first and foremost to provide us with a good story that is well written while being informed by the need for redemption in an often brutally sinful world.
In traditional hardboiled fashion, we are introduced to down and out Houston Police Detective Roland March who was once the golden boy of the department, but is now an unwanted, stumbling failure. He faces not only trouble at work, but also at home. His wife Charlotte is a successful attorney, but a chasm grows between them of unspoken origin. At work, March gets assigned to the cause célèbre du jour, the missing person case of Hannah Mayhew, an attractive teen who is also the daughter of a now deceased popular evangelist. He has hopes that a chance (?) discovery from another case will be his key to cracking the case and reviving his flailing career. Teamed with young and attractive up and comer Theresa Cavallo, March attempts to navigate the world of evangelical churches, police politics, ravenous media attention to his case and, ultimately, his own inner demons.
I must confess that at first I was a little put off by the staccato effect of March jumping from assignment to assignment, but that is really March’s frustration as well. Bertrand is letting us know that in the real world you don’t have an hour, including commercials, to smoothly solve a case with few distractions. It’s an authentic feature of the hardboiled genre. Bertrand also explores how media coverage influences investigative choices as well as the significance of the media choices behind that coverage. The media creates the cause célèbre du jour, which usually showcases a young attractive white girl as a victim. They then drive the story in their quest to fill the 24-hour news cycle. The police run the risk of “not doing enough” unless they feed the media machine with constant breaking news press conferences.
Bertrand does a nice job of exploring his characters, although the first person narrative doesn’t allow him a completely free hand. I would have liked to have seen a more depth to Hannah Mayhew’s mother, for example, but what we learn is what Roland March can learn. Special note has to be made of my favorite portrayal in the book, youth pastor Carter Robb. Robb is the self-flagellating spiritual mentor to the missing Hannah Mayhew. Bertrand skewers the modern evangelical youth leader with little more than straight-faced descriptions of appearance, from flip-flops to ever changing Christian “message” shirts. But Robb’s character is not cartoonish. It’s the realism of the descriptions that make them so hilarious.
While Bertrand successfully avoids the common dangers of Christian fiction—primarily its self consciousness—the real benefits are certainly found in Back On Murder. We’re not browbeaten with foul language and sexual encounters, such a staple of much of modern popular fiction. And Bertrand succeeds in integrating American religious life into a story whose protagonist himself is not religious. To read most fiction, or watch most television (or even the news), an outside observer would be shocked to find that tens of millions of Americans are active in churches throughout the country.
Back On Murder is the first in a projected series of Roland March mysteries. It is an auspicious beginning. Bertrand’s ultimate success is crafting a suspenseful story that not only draws you eagerly from chapter to chapter, but leaves you anticipating the next installment. As publishers constantly throw new fiction on the wall to see what sticks, Back On Murder tells us that Bertrand deserves to hang around.
[Readers of Theosebes may be familiar with J. Mark Bertrand as the man behind the excellent Bible Design Blog, well worth checking out.]