Back On Murder, by J. Mark Bertrand

Those of us who read both secular and Christian fiction tend to employ a double standard. There’s a full-out “excellent” category in the secular field, and then there’s “excellent for Christian fiction,” which is understood to be not quite as good as the secular stuff, but better than the average CBA fare.

(As a corollary, I find that I also have a counterbalancing prejudice. When I encounter really good Christian fiction, I think I sometimes depreciate it a little, just out of defensive critical snobbery. Something I need to watch out for. I may have done it with this book.)

J. Mark Bertrand, in his first police procedural novel, Back on Murder, shows himself qualified for a place on the shelf alongside successful mystery writers in the secular market. Perhaps not up in the highest rank (at least yet), but definitely big league.

The hero of Back On Murder is Roland March, a Houston police detective near the bottom of his profession. Once he was a star, the cop who solved a dramatic case that got turned into a best-selling book. But a personal tragedy took the heart out of him. Now he’s a time-server, the “suicide cop”–the cop who gets stuck with the unenviable job of investigating when other officers kill themselves. He’s the subject of pity and derision at headquarters. His marriage is strained.

But at the beginning of this story he finds himself, uncharacteristically, at a crime scene, a house where several gang members have been shot to death. By accident, he notices a detail that changes the whole investigation—someone has been tied to the bed in the house, and that someone is not there anymore. Suddenly March is “back on homicide,” and energized by an investigation for the first time in years. Then he’s transferred to a task force investigating the high-profile disappearance of a teenage girl. He’s disappointed until he grows convinced that the two cases are linked—the missing person on the bed, he believes, was that girl. Working with an attractive female missing persons cop, he enters the unfamiliar world of the girl’s church and faith life, puzzling like an anthropologist over the odd customs and mores of these bizarre evangelicals.

It’s always awkward for Christians to articulate their faith in fiction (this I know from experience), but Bertrand does an excellent job. There is absolutely no—zero–easy believism or deus ex machina in this book. The tragedies and injustices of life—the things that make men like March skeptics—are faced honestly. The theme of the book is one of the most frightening questions a Christian (especially a parent) can ask: “What if all these things we say about discipleship and taking up the cross were to lead one of our kids to really act on them? And what if laying down their lives ran the risk of actually losing them their lives? Could we cope with it? Do we really want what we say we want?”

The book isn’t perfect. The plot is perhaps a little too complicated. And I would have advised Bertrand to give us a little more positive angle on his hero at the start of the story. Detective Roland March is so passive at the beginning, so beaten down and cynical, that it’s hard to root for him. We learn to do that as we get to know him better, but I think Bertrand would have done better to have added a few hints earlier on.

Otherwise, great work. I look forward to the next book in the series, Pattern of Wounds, very much. Recommended for older teens and up.

11 thoughts on “Back On Murder, by J. Mark Bertrand”

  1. I loved that book, but I don’t think I’m able to judge it as well as you. There were a small number of first-book missteps at the beginning (but then again, they tend to be errors I find even in the best of contemporary crime authors), but once the story heats up I found that the police procedural aspect slipped behind the fascinating portrait of megachurch Evangelicalism.

    His characterization of the Church and Christians was literally so fascinating that, unless he’d made a serious blunder, I found it impossible to pay close attention to everything going on in the background.

    I did love (not to give spoilers) March’s complex relationship with alcohol, alcoholics, and irresponsibility. It nicely paid off the opening cynicism and passivity, in my mind.

  2. GK Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers were also Christian mystery writers who knew how to work it. Father Brown never ceases to amaze me. And then I found out GK has other detectives!

  3. You could probably add P.D. James to the list. Her mysteries are good, though her novel Children of Men earns the *very* rare distinction of being a book whose film adaptation was immensely better.

    Chesterton’s The Man Who Knew Too Much is well worth adding to your list. Admittedly, it feeds well into my political cynicism (it’s worth remembering that Chesterton was a personal friend with Winston Churchill, and had a rather ambivalent view of the man), with a protagonist who begins the story living an isolated existence having learned “too much” about how politics works. Yet it also has one of the greatest portraits of someone “working out his faith with fear and trembling” in the political arena.

    Finally, it has one of my favorite speeches ever.

    “‘I dare say every cigar I smoke and every liqueur I drink comes directly or indirectly from the harrying of the holy places and the persecution of the poor. After all, it needs very little poking about in the past to find that hole in the wall, that great breach in the defenses of English history. It lies just under the surface of a thin sheet of sham information and instruction …. Oh, the ice is thin, but it bears; it is strong enough to support us when we dress up as monks and dance on it, in mockery of the dear, quaint old Middle Ages. They told me I must put on fancy dress; so I did put on fancy dress, according to my own taste and fancy. I put on the only costume I think fit for a man who has inherited the position of a gentleman, and yet has not entirely lost the feeling of one ….’

    ‘Sackcloth,’ he said; ‘and I would wear the ashes as well if they would stay on my bald head.”

  4. though her novel Children of Men earns the *very* rare distinction of being a book whose film adaptation was immensely better.

    *cough/splutter/choke*

    WHAT?! You really thought the film of “Children of Men” was better than the book? I admit, its been a while since I read the book, and I watched the film (for the 2nd or 3rd time) a couple months ago… but, really? Why? I’m honestly fascinated: I thought the book was very good, verging on great, and the film was just about good.

  5. Ian–

    I saw the film first. It is one of my five favorite films, or at least 3 favorite films I didn’t grow up with. (It may move to 4, once I have time to process Tree of Life, which is both artistically spectacular and shockingly Christian in its orientation, explicitly framing itself as a meditation on the book of Job.)

    I also have to admit, I love seeing a non-literary media worked for all it is worth, without pretention. Children of Men nailed that, with its near-eternal shots that told entire stories and never felt gimmicky, its sudden and impactful violence, and images that just blew me away. From the opening stumble out of the Starbucks on, I was hooked.

  6. I have not seen the movie, but from the reviews I’ve read, its lesson seems to be pretty much the opposite of that of the book. And since I enjoyed the book, I vote for it.

  7. Sorry to reply so late. Comments piqued my curiosity; I read the book and watched the movie in sequence.

    It’s an odd sensation. I don’t recommend it unless you like oddness for odnesses sake. They feel like two beautiful compositions a half-step apart–not different enough to harmonize, but not similar enough to merge.

    I think it matters that I saw the film first. I think it also matters that I’m young, and the book came out a decade or so before the movie. The book was prophetic in the secular sense–many of its concerns (immigration, brutal prisons, government power-seeking) are much more concerning now than they were. The movie tries to be prophetic in the Biblical (or at least Old Testament) sense–it tries to point out the way humans treat each other right now, and calls people to turn their hearts towards justice (in the Biblical sense in which justice requires individuals and rulers to give ear to the poor, the alien, widows and orphans).

    Yes, it is a dissappointment that the movie drops the explicitly Christian context, choosing instead a struggle between “faith” and “chance.” But the movie has a much more detailed view of exactly what world power-hungry, sinful men and women create for themself when given just a chance. And finally, in comparison to the film’s caritas-centered ending, P.D. James’ closing domesticity just seems trite.

    The book is all about the guy getting the girl, in the end, even if the marriage does stand as a metonym for the full Christian community blessed by God. The movie, by getting rid of the love story, makes a much more powerful image of self-sacrificial love.

    The other major change is how the human-rights argument (central to both stories–see the title) is handled. Lines that, in the book, were placed in the mouth of innocent, largely nieve Englishmen and Englishwomen are given to the alleged victims of their violence. This actually makes for a much more powerful story.

    Halfway through the book someone claims that civilization isn’t worth anything if it doesn’t provide dignity to all. It sounds stirring, but doesn’t feel that profound in the grand scheme of things. The movie delays the same line, and gives it to someone else. A black revolutionary is shocked by the sight of a baby into setting down his gun and reminiscing about his sister. Yet the words that start in love end in hate. He screams out “but it isn’t worth anything if you don’t have dignity!” and sprays bullets indiscriminately. I don’t think I can ever forget that scene, and the way it illustrates her statement–because you get to see the man whose life didn’t feel dignified, whose sister died, and who in the end gives in to hate.

    So, yes. The movie leans anarchist, the book leans traditionalist, and they have their differences. But they both have much the same points to make about how we treat our neighbors, and the movie seems to provide a much more intense, lived-in and passionate view of the problem.

  8. Not having seen the movie, and having no plans to, I can’t speak definitively. But I think you may be missing the point that for P.D. James domesticity–the family–is a holy thing. It’s not a trite happy ending, but an affirmation of the matrix of physical and spiritual that make up human life as God intends it, which modern society has shoved aside as a triviality.

  9. Good point. Perhaps I am guilty of a bit of that trivialization–again, the two works feel like two piano compositions a half-step away from each other. I’d go further and say that the concluding christening goes further towards a vision of the broader matrix of Christians living and dead (or at least English Christians–I mean this not as a critique, but I think James is focused on English culture in this book. I’m sure she believes in the broader communion of saints, but that, quite literally, would be another story.)

    But even so, the eros story felt a bit forced to me, while the film’s caritas story didn’t. Probably if the hero had just been mortally wounded before christening the girl things would’ve been different. Or, more likely, I saw the movie too recently and wanted something that, however philosophically close to James’s vision, just wasn’t the story she wanted to tell.

    I’m not saying others have to feel the same way; for some reason, faced with sputtering indignation, I felt that it was worth re-experiencing both stories and publicly announcing the results.

    Both very good stories though.

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