Like other genre lovers, crime fiction fans shake out into distinct categories. The details-obsessed procedural aficionado. The adorer of adrenalized thrillers. The guy who digs bare-knuckle hardboiled brawlers. J. Mark Bertrand's Back on Murder has something to offer them all.
Homicide detective Roland March has seen better days. Once he was a rising star in the Houston police department, a hotshot who bagged a miraculous confession from a wife murderer, a confession so dramatic that he became the subject of a lurid true-crime hardcover. Now no one wants to write about him. Instead of soaring into orbit, March's career cratered due to a very personal situation he'd prefer not to discuss, thank you very much. Rather than investigate murders, he examines the messy aftermath of fellow officers who eat their guns. He's the Suicide Cop, the most loathed job on the force -- but perhaps not for much longer. While tagging along at the scene of a gangland mass execution, he notices something among the corpses of slain bangers that everyone else misses: four cut cords lashed to a blood-soaked bed. Now if he can just find out who was tied down there, he might find his back on the murder squad.
Most of Bertrand's debut focuses on everyday cops sussing out suspects, chasing down leads, and putting all the puzzle pieces together. To me, much of it unfolds like an updated version of Ed McBain's early 87th Precinct books. But Bertrand seems to realize that overeager entertainers have milked the plain-Jane procedural deathly dry over the years. (I'm looking at you, Dick Wolf.) He cuts the investigative stuff with the kind of tense, action-y setups you'd expect from, say, Andrew Klavan, and when violence inevitably comes crashing down like a ball-peen hammer on an outstretched hand, it's as gritty as anything you'd expect from established hardboiled scribes. Bertrand even lends a certain poetic grace to the tough bits. After a brutal beating, an informant's "eye opens, the blue cornea bright in a red sea of burst vessels." The final shuddering seizures of a gut-shot gangster become a "saintly spasm," his gaze "rolling heavenward in agony, brows arched in acute pain." And when we finally learn the nature of the tragedy that haunts Marsh, it comes in a scene so wrenching, so raw, so downright mean that it'll likely thrill even the shriveled hearts of the noir set.
Not that many will noir fans will read it, I fear. Oddly enough, Back on Murder hails from a religious publisher better known for theological works than gritty crime fiction. I say "odd" because the novel doesn't feel like your typical CBA offering. No avoidance of violence and sex. No tearful conversion scenes. No pat endings. That may surprise those who enjoy Amish romances and pseudo-apocalyptic dispensational thrillers. What may catch mainstream crime fiction fans off-guard is that Bertrand populates his book with several characters who don't think it's strange to believe in God, go to church, and wear the occasional cheesy Martin Luther-themed t-shirt. Of course, Back on Murder also likes to soak those same shirts in gore, which pleases my own desiccated ticker to no end.
(Picture: CC 2011 by Victoria Pickering; Hat Tip: Brandywine Books)