Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 12/30/2011 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. Superlative in every way: suspense, pacing, characterization, human interest, use of language, etc.
How do you like your fiction served? Prefer a character-driven story? A relationship story? A suspenseful crime thriller? Or perhaps you simply want to read something written by a master craftsman of the English language? Back on Murder by J. Mark Bertrand is all these things and at the same time is more than the sum of its parts. It may be cliché to the hilt to say the following, but I just could not put the book down, and not merely because the plot swept me up and wouldn't let go. Kindly allow me the duration of this review to explain.
I haven't read a mystery in ages, but I'm no stranger to the genre. I cut my teeth on the Hardy Boys, read Nancy Drew when I had exhausted the Hardys, then moved on to Agatha Christie. Throughout university, while completing an undergraduate degree in language and literature, I dabbled with other mystery writers but never become a fan of another one...until now.
It's no secret that a story needs some sort of human interest element in order to succeed. Many a decent plot has floundered on the rocks of uninteresting characterization. Back on Murder succeeds where others have failed or only half-succeeded, as it features a brooding and intriguing protagonist with enough of a back-story and rough edges to keep you from putting down the book for too long a stretch. March is a washed-up detective, but he does good detective work, and there's the rub. He is a flawed hero; think of a modern-day Houstonite Hamlet without the mother-father issues and 9,000 less words.
Some readers will no doubt be awaiting the near-ubiquitous Christian fiction conversion moment...but I'll leave that to the reader to discover. Forgive me for donning my English teacher cap, but the reader must dignify March where he is in his journey; we cannot with any literary legitimacy play the "coulda, shoulda" game. For me, the most theologically intriguing aspect of March's character is his Romans 7 struggle: he acts even when he knows the outcome of that action will be detrimental to himself and others. March is a character worth a story - no, worth a series - and I anticipate more Roland March in my near future.
Of course, we can't forget the book's official genre, mystery. Not surprisingly, the book succeeds in this area as well. As indicated in the book's very title - in case you hadn't noticed - a couple of murders do occur. The acts and the remains are described realistically and sometimes graphically but never gratuituously. Life is not viewed as cheap in Back on Murder, but neither is Bertrand's HPD a prescient host of angels able to miraculously intervene before a child of God loses their life before their time.
Enough said by now, I think. This book has it all: intriguing mysteries, compelling characters, and brilliant use of the English language. It's not too dark to read at bedtime, and is so well-paced that your interest should not flag unless you have ingested a sleeping pill (pay no attention to the two negative Amazon reviewers who say otherwise).
The second Roland March mystery is Pattern of Wounds, which released in July 2011. The third, entitled Nothing to Hide, will release in July 2012. Bertrand has also written an excellent non-fiction book, which I included in my recent "Top 5 Books of the Past 5 Years" blog post.