Roland March, a washed-up cop, is estranged from his work, his colleagues, his wife—and just about any reason he once had for waking up each morning.
Personal tragedy has left him calloused to anything but his own pain. Once celebrated, March has become a liability to his department and alienated from every ally he ever had. He now coasts through his days, an invisible outcast.
But with the murder of Octavio Morales, loan shark to Houston’s sleazebags, March, the protagonist in J. Mark Bertrand’s new detective novel Back on Murder, feels the faint churn of what once stirred him. At the crime scene, he’s noticed something the others haven’t: restraints have been tied to the bottom of Morales’s bed. Somebody—a girl?—had been shackled there. And while the dead bodies of four gangbangers have been left right where they fell, the girl’s body has been taken. For March, this is a rare piece of good detecting.
On the same day, across town, a girl has gone missing. Hannah Mayhew is young, white, blond, and beautiful. And because she’s entrenched in Houston’s evangelical aristocracy, she’s the main topic on talk radio; her picture’s on the evening news, her pretty face is splashed across the front page of the morning paper.
Two girls are lost. They come from the same town, but different worlds. The white blond captures the heart of the whole country; the stash house victim remains unknown and unacknowledged.
With details of the two cases swirling, an odd thought slips across March’s mind: Could these two cases really be coincidental? How often, even in a city the size of Houston, do two girls disappear on the same day? Could Morales have kidnapped Hannah Mayhew? Is it possible that a good, Christian girl—a native of Houston’s buffed and polished suburbs—found her way into the realm of drug dealers and low-life loan sharks?
Others scoff at the notion. The gulf between Mayhew and Morales is too wide to be bridged. But March has got a feeling—down deep, where his once reliable instincts simmer—that the shackled girl is the key to both cases.
March follows up on a few worthless files. He’s sent to interview an expert witness. But, still quick to alienate his adversaries, he disobeys orders. Desperate to find the link between Mayhew and Morales, he follows his own hunch and quickly gets reassigned—along with the “dead weight” from other departments—to the newly convened Hannah Mayhew task force.
Theresa Cavallo is there, too. And March, whose marriage has chilled, is a sucker for the missing persons cop who’s got “large, brown eyes, a sharp nose dusted with freckles, just a hint of makeup and a slight dishevelment to her limply thick black hair. Letting the world know she can look like this without trying.”
Cavallo, a Christian, becomes March’s guide and translator for his first foray into evangelical culture.
One of his early encounters in the mega-church world is with Carter Robb who, with spiked hair and a “Got Jesus” t-shirt, is a perfect fit in the youth pastor mold. Robb knows more than he’s telling. He’s guilty, March discovers, not of a crime, but of exhorting pampered kids to live sacrificial lives. He’s preached that God doesn’t want them safe; He wants them involved with the least and lost of Houston. Hannah has taken up the challenge. She’s reached out to James Fontaine, who deals weed at the local high school. And to “Evey—short for Evangeline,” who’s got a shady, maybe abusive past, and ” . . . who had this creepy sort of maturity.”
March’s hunch grows stronger: Could a good Christian girl, prodded out of her comfort zone by a zealous pastor, find her way to the seamiest side of Houston? March—and only March—knows there’s a connection. But both cases soon grow cold. Promising leads go nowhere. Frustration mounts.
Looking for a reason to avoid home, March heads for the Paragon, his favourite bar. He orders a whisky sour but, this being a Christian novel, he doesn’t drink it. He sits alone, brooding, indulging his miserable fortune.
When he reaches for his wallet, March learns that the drink’s been paid for—courtesy of Joe Thomson, a Houston detective, member of an elite but suspect unit. Thomson, March learns, has information that will blow the Morales case wide open. He can deliver the shooters gift-wrapped and tied in a bow, but he demands immunity. Stephen Wilcox, Thomson explains—March’s ex-partner who’s now with Internal Affairs—will want to give it.
March stirs with signs of new life. Thomson might actually deliver. And in Thomson, March finds hope. He was a dirty cop, but he was also changed. In March’s eyes, “He’d changed enough to get his wife back. Enough to turn on his former friends . . . which in my book made him one of us, not them.” In Joe Thomson, March gets a glimpse of redemption.
But no sooner has Thomson stepped forward than there’s an attempt on March’s life.
And then the call comes from March’s lieutenant: There’s been a suicide. A cop. Can March look into it?
March reluctantly agrees. “Who is it?” he wants to know.
“A guy by the name of Joseph Thomson.”
From here—with the help of a hurricane, an artist, and a grieving widow—the dots begin to connect Mayhew to Morales; Morales to Thomson; and Thomson to the unknown girl once shackled at the scene of Morales’ murder.
Back on Murder is a well-woven story. The reader, step-by-step with Roland March, searches for clues, deciphers meaning, sees connections—drawing ever closer to the surprising, yet believable, conclusion. Read it, and savour the fun of a good detective story.
Bertrand’s got a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue. The cop-talk, for fans of the tough guy genre, hits the right note every time. Listen, you’ll love the faint echo of Mickey Spillane and Rex Stoudt. March mopes at the Paragon: “A waitress named Marta flounces up, showing an inconceivable amount of tanned thigh. Acts like she’s never seen me before, not realizing she actually has. She jots down my whisky sour, which I have no intention of drinking, then shuffles bar-ward through the crowd, shaking schoolgirl pigtails that look anything but innocent . . . .”
At the restaurant where he meets Wilcox, the waitress ” . . . is short and lithe, upholstered in nubby fabric from the developing world, dreadlocks tied back, a stack of tribal bangles protecting her wrist. But her glasses say ARMANI on the side.”
Page after page, Bertrand’s command of rhythm and pace is an aesthetic delight. Each sentence builds anticipation; each scene leads deeper into the distinct but converging crimes.
And in the end, through the influence of Hannah Mayhew and her mother, through Carter Robb and Theresa Cavallo, March learns new lessons about forgiveness, grace, and how to pick up the pieces of a life that’s been shattered.
Early on, readers learn that March doubts the existence of God. Yet he’s unambiguous about the presence of evil. March believes in evil’s “existence and power, the way it grows like mold on every surface, teeming beneath the walls, as insinuating as the Gulf Coast heat. It has a grip on all of us. It has its claws in me.”
For March, solving these crimes has been the therapy he needed, the key to finding peace, to confronting his own demons. And with that—redemptive as it is—comes a lone quibble.
Compare Roland March to Adam Dalgliesh, the P.D. James character. Dalgliesh, like March, is the victim of profound loss. And yet, through his private grief, Dalgliesh comes to grips with the all-encompassing consequences of evil. With wisdom that’s only bestowed by loss, Dalgliesh sees that the rule of law, the presence of moral standards, and the existence of society’s mores are the forces that hold life together. He solves murders not merely to quell his grief, but to fight cosmic chaos and battle afflictions that mankind was never meant for.
As author and critic John Gardner once said, art—and literature in particular—exists to “beat back the monsters.” Fiction, Gardner correctly believed, is a game “played against chaos and death, against entropy . . . .” March is too self-absorbed, too concerned with his sad lot in life; he solves crime for no higher purpose than self-esteem, hoping to find his way “back on murder.”
But, to be fair, we’ve just met him. Our relationship with Dalgliesh goes back nearly 50 years and to 14 novels. Let’s see where Roland March goes.
In this first installment of a promising new series, Bertrand has given readers an intriguing plot, delightful prose, engaging dialog, and a story that’s well worth reading.