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.