Writing in The Weekly Standard, Jon Breen makes the bold claim that Christian crime fiction has come of age in the novels of J. Mark Bertrand. Three weeks and three books later, I have come up for air ready to testify to Bertand’s talent. Yet in spite of the fact that his books have a Christian publisher, I wouldn’t call them Christian fiction.
I mean that as a compliment, Mr. Bertrand. The best Christian writers (O’Connor, Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton) didn’t write Christian fiction, they wrote fiction. Their worldview isn’t absent from their books, but they don’t subordinate their story to a message. Likewise, Bertrand’s allegiance is to his genre, characters, and plot, not to a fictional conversion narrative or religious epiphany. He’s just writing good crime fiction.
The three novels in the Roland March series, Back on Murder, Pattern of Wounds, and Nothing to Hide, follow the investigations of a Houston homicide detective. These are not cozy murder mysteries. They are decisively gritty, even grisly at points. If the crimes they describe were portrayed on primetime television, I could not stomach watching them. Bertrand neither glamorizes nor sanitizes the homicide beat.
Though narrated by an embittered agnostic, the Roland March novels do not lack Christian characters. They include the megachurch youth pastors and televangelists you would expect to run across in Houston. These characters occasionally touch on their beliefs, but they don’t delve into them. At one point, a character gives a slightly canned answer to the problem of evil, only to later recant. Bertrand is willing to drop theological breadcrumbs, but you will have to follow them on your own time.
While he avoids the tropes of Christian fiction, you won’t find profanity in Bertand’s books. Avoiding expletives is not so hard if one is writing pioneer love stories, but it’s no mean feat when writing about hardened homicide cops. Yet the characters’ flaws are so convincing you’d never notice they don’t curse, and the inability to rely on profanity to show anger makes for better writing.
Bertrand would not have had to work as hard to stay within the constraints of a Christian publishing house if he had set his murders in a vicarage in a village. But murder investigations are not the work of a vicar, and their telling should not be the literary equivalent of comfort food. These books, while free of salaciousness, reveal crime in its raw ugliness. They also reveal the corrosion at work on a man who must spend his life immersed in evil in order to bring it to justice.
The Roland March books are not “safe and fun for the whole family” (as so many Christian radio stations proudly proclaim). The books are full of violence, the characters haunted by the fear that justice will be jeopardized. The same can be said of the book that Christians build their lives upon.
Nothing to Hide, the third book in the series, follows the structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but in reverse. Just as Dante through the character of Virgil guides his readers through the underworld, J. Mark Bertrand through the character of Roland March guides his readers through the underbelly of this world. It doesn’t take a Christian to write a vivid and accurate description of evil. But a Christian, who knows the source of evil and its ultimate defeat, makes a more trustworthy guide.