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Back on Murder
Posted December 14, 2010 by Joshua Moon

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Bertrand, Back on Murder

J. Mark Bertrand, Back on Murder (Bethany House, 2010)

When I first envisioned this section of the website, I didn’t have in mind that it would sit growing cobwebs in the back. And I didn’t have in mind that I would try to blow the dust off with a review/recommendation of a fictional murder mystery. But here we are….

Mark Bertrand, the author of this clever work, is a PCA elder in our Presbytery at one of the churches around Sioux Falls. Mark is bright, eloquent, and this work shows his devotion to writing well and popularly. Good writing is an art, and too often it seems that Christian writing (especially of the fictional sort) has cared too little for the art. The emphasis falls instead either into Christian moralism or “preaching” in narratives, and the art of crafting words and plot become unnecessary. It’s a kind of gnostic fault in writing: the disembodied ideas are of real importance, while the clothing in flesh is dispensable. And the result? The disembodied ideas come across as either lame or sentimentalized. And the reader, moving easily enough through the pages, has to be content with something disappointingly short of beauty. Back on Murder is not one of those books. It is well-written prose, written for everyone. It is easy reading in the sense that you do not feel that you are working, but you are being carried directly into the plot and life of the characters. The “clothing” of the plot, in other words, gives beauty without becoming an end in itself (the flaw of the other end of the spectrum).

Back on Murder is the first of a new series of murder mysteries centered around Roland March, your somewhat familiar tough cop, embittered and disappointed by life. Though at one time a famous homicide detective in Houston, he has fallen out of favor in the department, faces a struggling marriage, and ghosts that (at the outset) only peek out from his past. Mark paints Houston itself almost as a character in the work, making it hard to imagine the plot lifted into another setting. The unsettled, shifting, and divided nature of the city provides a compliment to March’s own life and struggles. The murders driving the narrative are captivating in themselves and well-executed (no pun intended), but the great attraction in the work is Roland March. You read to discover what has shaped March’s life, and why he has become such a man. By the end of the work the murders have the feeling of acting as the backdrop, or the means by which the character of Roland March is allowed to unfold. It’s the sign of a good first work in the series: I won’t read the second simply for the plot, but because I’ve become attached to the character.

I highly recommend the work. It’s smart, well-written, and enjoyable. These days I do not get nearly as much time as I would wish for reading novels, and so I feel even more disappointed with a poor work. But this one did not disappoint: good writing, intricate and thoughtful plot, and “ponderous” material for the reader. (It’s always great to find something like this just before Christmas, when wondering what gifts to buy to fill out Santa’s list....)

I’m told by good sources (i.e. Mark himself) that the second volume is now complete. I can’t wait.

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