Wednesday, July 14, 2010

CFBA Tour - Back on Murder

I've talked in the last couple of posts about Robin Parrish and his latest novel, Nightmare, a paranormal suspense that has mostly glowing reviews with a couple of people giving a polite cough and wondering if it belongs in "Christian fiction."

I wonder if a similar situation will occur with the latest CFBA book tour feature: Back on Murder by J. Mark Bertrand.

Back on Murder is the first in a series about Houston homicide detective Roland March. The book starts off on a note that doesn't bode well for keeping a series going: "I'm on the way out."

March has been a star detective in the past, but events personal and private have sapped him and pushed him to the periphery of his department. Now he handles the garbage cases no one wants, like the bait-and-switch "Cars for Criminals" program and investigating suicides within the department.

When the pretty blonde daughter of a prominent Houston televangelist goes missing, it captures all of the media attention. March ends up helping with a case flying under the radar, a gangbanger murder that seems like a typical hit. This last gasp gives him one last chance, and when he notices signs of something more at the crime scene, he is given a lifeline.

As he chases down leads others disregard, he starts to suspect a connection in these unrelated cases. March maneuvers the politics of the police department, weathers a hurricane along with the turmoil in his personal life, and tries to piece together the disparate clues to see if he can get "back on murder."
J. Mark Bertrand is an author I interacted with on prior writing sites. He is a deep thinker and appreciates quality writing and a artistic use of language. He constantly challenged our group on what it means to write Christian fiction. Therefore I was very intrigued to read his first solo book (he co-authored a romantic suspense with Deeann Gist, Beguiled).

I linked Nightmare and Back on Murder because they represent new frontiers in Christian/CBA fiction, not because they are very similar. They both take risks that may make some readers a little uncomfortable.

Mark talks in a guest post at Forensics and Faith how he took risks with his book. Some of it is technique: he tells the book in a first person/present tense point of view. We see the events as Roland March experiences them, without a past tense introspection or other viewpoints that lets us see what is occurring elsewhere. The other risk is that there is a lot of ambiguity with the book. March is not a Christian, but he interacts with people from the megachurch as they search for the missing daughter. Bertrand doesn't shy away from subtle critique through March's viewpoint, but he doesn't preach through it.

So what about the story? It is a bit of a slow burn. It builds up carefully at first. There was enough to whet my appetite, but at times the action isn't moving along as fast as a popcorn-special-effects cop flick. There is a little perseverance require to get the payoff as different threads slowly weave together. Mark does a good job of keeping some cards hidden for a long time, like the personal trauma that affects Roland in his marriage and work. The first third of the book suffers a little drag at times, but again, there is a rich and exciting ride that follows. The ending keeps the reader guessing, and there is a wrap-up on most points while leaving some questions hang for another book.

The characters are quite deep. Roland March has a voice that seems very authentic for a jaded detective. Other characters are fleshed out convincingly, and there are shades of grey all around. It isn't a book where the bad guys twist mustaches or the good guys wear white hats. There's a lot to plumb out of these flawed people.

How does it push the boundaries of the CBA? Well, there is no clear-cut declaration of faith (which isn't AS edgy anymore.) I'm not a big reader of detective mysteries, but it gives a realistic view of life as a detective with the grittiness intact. Faith interacts with the story, but it isn't always pretty. Still, Mark does a great job looking at some modern Evangelical flaws without cynacism.

I think the biggest push is that the book isn't neat and tidy. Hard things happen, the miracles aren't always apparent, but hope is not lost. I think it has a distinctive voice that is unlike most CBA books.

This is where Nightmare and Back on Murder come back together. In reading reviews on Amazon (in general) I get the feeling a lot of CBA readers like uplifting tales that show life that is a little too polished. Everything gets a happy ending. There are certainly places for those type of books, but if you like a book that examines real life (BoM) or examines the supernatural what-ifs (Nightmare), then the good news is that CBA continues to evolve.

To sum up: Back on Murder asks a little investment, and in return you get a distinctive book that entertains and offers up scenarios that are thoughtful, without the author telling you what to think. I really enjoyed the book, and I will be looking forward to book two, Pattern of Wounds. As I said, this isn't my typical genre, but Mark Bertand has earned my interest - and you would do well to check it out! 

 If you want to check out the first chapter of Back On Murder, go HERE.

Finally, I have a few more thoughts on Christian/CBA fiction that I'll hopefully address tomorrow. I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on BoM or books in general.


  1. I appreciate the thoughtful review, Jason. It was a pleasure to read. I'm glad you liked the book!

  2. Nice summary! I had a few questions in my mind while reading - along the lines of what you're saying - but the end tied everything PERFECTLY (not in a happy-ever-after way) and made this a life-impacting book for me.

  3. Mark- Hey thanks! Good job on the book - here's to it catching on in a big way!

    Mozi - Thank you as well. I'd be interested in hearing why it was "life-impacting" if you don't mind. I agree that Mark tied things together well without making everything into pretty little bows. I can't recall any loose threads left hanging, but it is like real life - messy.