In a New York Times Magazine profile of Philip Seymour Hoffman in late 2008, Hoffman offered insight into his standards for his own art concluding that “when subtlety is lost, I get upset.” I’ve embraced Hoffman’s sentiment as it aptly describes my own tastes in cocktails, food, humor (OK, sometimes there are exceptions), and novels. I find subtlety difficult to achieve in my own work and sadly, nuance finds certain genres to be less-than-hospitable homes.
Subtlety and nuance are not qualities I strongly associate with crime fiction, so perhaps this is something I should have considered before picking up J. Mark Bertrand’s new novel, Back On Murder.
Back On Murder traces the steps of out-of-favor police detective, Roland March, as he makes one last attempt to resurrect his career. March has been putting in his time as the “suicide cop,” investigating the suicides of his fellow officers when he’s called on to investigate a multi-victim homicide at a rundown house serving as the headquarters for an underground loan shark in southwest Houston. One good crime scene observation by March, and our hero finds himself in a position to prove that he still has the edge and insight to again work homicide.
What follows is both exactly what the reader expects, and in places, there are pleasant surprises. It’s an entertaining read—nothing too heavy, no theories of aesthetics or attempts to uncover the essential facts of human nature. The story unfolds smoothly, which is not to say predictably, as Bertrand slowly introduces us to March (our narrator) and hints at March’s long bygone heyday as one of Houston’s best homicide detectives and his subsequent fall. The pacing of the story is just right—slowing when it should and picking up just as March’s adrenaline begins to flow.
Throw in the missing daughter of a famous evangelist, a handful of corrupt police officers, a marriage saddled with its own emotional baggage, a couple of attempts on our hero’s life, and a violent hurricane, and you can’t possibly avoid producing a page-turner. I won’t tell you how it ends, but as this is the first in a series of Roland March mysteries to be published by Bethany House — you do the math. There are plenty of forensic details to enthrall the reader in search of a good crime story. If you’re a devotee of CSI, Bertrand’s painstaking attention to bullet trajectories and grainy cell phone photographs is sure to satisfy.
Bertrand’s selection of details away from the crime scene is satisfying as well. He clearly knows the oppressive nature of Houston humidity — how in such a story, it is an independent actor. When the search for a missing teenage girl takes March to interview the staff of the suburban church where the girl’s mother works, Bertrand deftly describes the mega church that has become emblematic of today’s evangelical brand of Christendom. He approaches evangelicalism sympathetically, but not as a promoter, and his portrayal of young youth pastor Carter Robb and the missing girl’s mother are surprisingly evenhanded. It is rare to read a portrayal of the church in popular fiction that is neither satirical nor condemning nor dusted with sugared flower petals. He even evades the Christian fiction convention of a conversion experience, allowing his characters a far more nuanced path of development than those renderings often allow.
Bertrand handles these aspects of his tale well—I think I may actually know a few Carter Robbs—and even with some semblance of subtlety, but Bertrand is a bit too reticent to come out with March’s backstory. He risks the reader’s anticipation, and turns to indifference as he drags his feet in explaining why March sits alone in a local bar without touching his whiskey sour, or why March’s wife Charlotte always take so many sleeping pills in early September. And nuance fails him when March sizes up the attractive young woman with whom he is assigned to look for the missing girl: “I’m so disillusioned with her I almost pass up the opportunity to study her from behind. Almost.”
Bertrand is at his best when describing the nitty-gritty of Houston’s criminal underground, and when he is leading March to piece new evidence into cogent theories. His characters, with a few exceptions, are multi-dimensional and sympathetic. But the novel would benefit from a lighter touch when it comes to the motivations and histories of the principal characters.
I don’t suggest that Hoffman would approve, but if you are looking for a new crime drama on which to while away a few lazy summer days, Back On Murder is a good place to begin. By next year’s summer vacation, Roland March will be back in a new book—and we can only hope that his adrenaline will be pumping and his inner thoughts a shade more nuanced.