Christian crime fiction comes of age.
Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By JON L. BREEN
But Bertrand may be the finest of the lot. Though unquestionably committed to his religious beliefs, the creator of Roland March would be bored by a protagonist who lacked human frailties or believed he had all the answers. The character is not even a practicing Christian in the three novels he has appeared in to date. Bertrand is so attracted to antiheroes that, when he lists his favorite British TV detectives on his website, he almost apologizes for including the unambiguous straight-arrow sleuth of Foyle’s War.
The first novel in the March series, Back on Murder (2010), begins with the very bloody murder of gang-connected loan shark Octavio Morales, the graphic description of whose body immediately clues in the reader that this isn’t a novel likely to have sold to Bethany Fellowship. More reassuring is the summary of the Houston cops as less foul-mouthed than their Dallas counterparts, who star in their own reality show: “And no matter who you are—a shirtless banger with enough ink on your skin to write a circuit court appeal or a corner skank in a skintight halter—we’ll address you as sir or ma’am.”
However, March adds, “We are polite not because we are polite, but because we want to send you to Huntsville for the balance of your natural life, or even stick you with that needle of fate.”
Roland March is introduced as an over-the-hill detective, discounted by his colleagues, back provisionally in homicide after being consigned to a sting operation intending to lure in felons with a free-car offer. He would like to regain his old stature, which included being the hero of a true-crime book called The Kingwood Killing. March often has to fight not only the perps but also his own colleagues, who are sometimes bent and frequently have other agendas. He is happily married to a lawyer, though a tragedy in their past and her increasing religiosity cause some tensions in their relationship. The personal trauma that precipitated March’s fall (though hinted at) is not revealed until late in the book. One clue: In a bar, March orders a whiskey sour but doesn’t intend to drink it, for reasons not immediately explained.
The novel’s main case, which may or may not be eventually connected to the death of Octavio Morales, involves the disappearance of teenager Hannah Mayhew, whose evangelist father Peter died years before under unusual circumstances. Though uncommitted religiously, March will encounter many believers both professionally and personally, among them youth pastor Carter Robb, with whom March will have an odd sort of mentoring relationship. A telling description of the raw and inexperienced Robb exemplifies the author’s skill at characterization:
To his credit, he looks me straight in the eye. Set deep in that uncomplicated face, its perfect symmetry exuding all-American innocence, his gaze seems incongruous, darkened by an unearned seriousness, the sort brought on by books and too many grave conversations. . . . [He] somehow manages to project an old man’s world-weariness, an acquaintance with pain that contradicts his unlined skin.
The plot of this first March case is complex, the action-finale expertly done, the surprises efficiently sprung. The denouement invites a theological discussion about the concept of forgiveness.
In the second book, Pattern of Wounds, March is confronted with the possibility that the resolution of his signature case, the murder of Nicole Fauk and the conviction of her husband Donald that was the topic of The Kingwood Killing, may have been a mistake. The murder may have actually been the work of a prolific serial killer whose crimes consist of the stabbing deaths of women in or near bodies of water, from ditches and reservoirs to swimming pools and bathtubs. The current murder of Simone Walker fits the pattern, and the crime scene appears to have been staged to resemble a photo from The Kingwood Killing. The hero-worshipping author of the book that made a celebrity of March now emerges as an adversary.
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