Houston detective Roland March is in many ways a typical police procedural protagonist.
He’s a troubled big city cop with lone wolf tendencies. Though unquestionably a good guy, sometimes the only good guy in the room, he has his personal demons and unattractive traits. He’s as likely to tangle with his department’s Internal Affairs Division as with the villains. Admirable as he may be in his intentions, he often drives those around him nuts. Other prominent examples include Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, and Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole.
As the formidable stylists Connelly and Rankin bring to life Bosch’s Southern California and Rebus’s Edinburgh, J. Mark Bertrand proves their equal, capturing March’s Texas home ground vividly in passages like this from Pattern of Wounds (2011):
Against a backdrop of tall pines, a statue of Sam Houston looms over I-45, marking my arrival in the prison town of Huntsville. He’s made of concrete atop a granite base, but to me the lack of detail from the neck down makes him look like an oversized soap carving. This morning the great man is wreathed in fog, glowering down on the half-empty highway, bone white against the gray sky.
The Roland March novels follow a standard pattern in contemporary series mystery fiction: tragic backstory; numerous continuing characters; story elements carrying over from book to book, with enough revealed to make reading the books in order if not obligatory, at least highly desirable.
This is not necessarily the best way to go for most writers, but J. Mark Bertrand uses the conventions brilliantly. The main action sticks to the case at hand, without frequent detours so a favorite character can put in an obligatory appearance. The police procedure has a feel of authenticity, with extensive detail of weaponry and forensics, and the course of the investigation bears some of the messiness of real life. The narrative energy is relentless. The visual, cinematic style sticks to a single first-person viewpoint, a unity some contemporary thriller writers violate to their detriment. Present-tense narrative annoys some readers (including this one at times), but its sense of urgency and immediacy is effective in the March novels.
Bertrand is a major crime-fiction talent—one of the best police procedural writers I’ve come upon in years—but he has not reached nearly the wide audience he deserves for a simple reason: His novels come from a religious publisher.
A quarter-century ago, for an essay collection on Judeo-Christian religion in mystery fiction, I read several detective novels from Christian publishers. Directed at a traditional evangelical audience, they were clearly produced under rather severe editorial restrictions. One author told me that at least one conversion per book was a requirement. In a scene involving an elaborate dinner party at a secular think tank, the food on offer was described in detail, but at no point was there any reference to before-dinner drinks or wine with dinner—not even so that the pure hero could turn them down. The scene occurred in a book published by Bethany Fellowship.
Under those taboos, you might manage a village cozy, a gothic romance, or the gentler sort of classical whodunit. But could you shoehorn a down-and-dirty 21st-century police procedural into Bethany’s tight guidelines? Not likely.
In recent years, however, Christian fiction publishing has changed. In its current submission guidelines, the rebranded Bethany House requires “an intriguing, well-written story with well-developed characters, a compelling plot, colorful description, and a strong authorial voice” along with “a coherent, identifiable theme and/or particular characters who reflect Christian values or teachings without being preachy.”
Writers for this market now have a greater opportunity to consider sex, explicit violence, and multiple viewpoints on controversial moral and ethical issues. Though the taboo against bad language remains in play, Christian novelists may now be less fettered than Hollywood filmmakers of the 1940s, who managed to overcome Production Code strictures to produce meaningful and sophisticated work.
A variety of worthy writers have taken advantage of this new freedom: Readers of Scott Turow and John Grisham might look for the courtroom novels of Randy Singer or James Scott Bell; and those who cherish the locked-room puzzles of John Dickson Carr could investigate Michael Lister’s novels and stories about prison chaplain John Jordan.