For some police officers the dead body is the end of the case. The search for the living is over and there is nothing left to do. For homicide detectives the body is the start. The dead body is the door opening on a case waiting to be solved. For Homicide Detective Ronald March, the results of a shootout in southwest Houston are his ticket back to fully functioning in Homicide and ending his exile of being farmed out on garbage details.
If he does not screw it up.
Since that fateful tragic day seven years ago, things have not been right personally or professionally. What happens over the next few weeks and months in the summer and fall of 2008 might be his last chance at everything.
A local loan shark by the name of Octavio Morales is dead as are several of his criminal associates. Detective March should not even be in the house surveying the carnage as he has fallen out of favor with his bosses. But, a house full of dead gang bangers brings out everyone and March couldn’t stay away. Â It has been far too long since he last worked a real murder case and he burns with the need to work one. He surveys the scene and only March spots the evidence that indicates that a hostage was there and now is gone.
Despite the fact that he alone found the evidence, March is still locked into the bottom of the pecking order and wasting his time with crummy assignments. Whether it is the frequent sting operations enticing bad guys to show up and claim the cars they won, the cop suicides he gets stuck with, or a number of others, the details are garbage jobs. March has earned his bottom feeder status and he isn’t going anywhere. Â At least, until he spotted the evidence that no one else noticed and changed the case from a routine killing to a missing hostage search. That earns him a temporary reprieve and minor league status in the Morales case.
Assuming he doesn’t screw up.
But, he will. He does. And yet, March also makes his own kind of twisted luck. It may be tarnished luck but under all the slime there is luck and every now and then he comes through in a strange way.
This debut mystery by author J. Mark Bertrand features the usual stereotypical elements of a burned out detective, a nearly destroyed marriage thanks to personal tragedy, and a city that is little more than a cesspool with a population stirred up by a hysterical media tracking a missing personâ€™s case. Usually these sorts of books are set in Los Angeles. Instead, the former Texas resident set it in Houston and also managed to weave in Hurricane Ike from a couple of years back along the way.
Somehow, despite beating the stereotype drum in nearly every area, J. Mark Bertrand makes it work. Before long, one gets pulled in the noirish style world of Ronald March where he frequently makes mistakes and yet survives against all the odds. Psychology is a huge part of this novel and March quickly becomes not only your friend but a guy you know that just seems to always have the deck stacked against him. He canâ€™t play politics, goes his own way and does not fit in, and yet manages to always get the job done.
The author’s MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston shows throughout the debut novel as one gets the feeling every character trait and plot point is orchestrated for effect in order to make a nice neat check mark on the master list. At the same time, when he is actively working and on the chase, occasional overwriting and stereotypical blemishes vanish as Mr. Bertrand brings the scenes alive so well you can almost taste it. It is when the action slows and March becomes contemplative about his life and what has happened that the novel drifts a bit. That also means occasional errors in grammar, pacing, the timeline of the novel, etc. are glaringly more present.
Just like in real life not everything in Back On Murder is tied up in a nice neat package. While most plot lines are tied off well, one minor storyline involving a tenant is cut off way too nice and neat. It comes to an abrupt dead stop and results in a missed opportunity for further character development and secondary plot.Â Considering how hard the storyline had been pushed up until the abrupt ending, the reader is left to wonder why it just suddenly ended in that way.
Overall, the novel is good, but not as great as it could be. This may be a case where writers would be a bit harsher in their criticism of the book than the average reader as we recognize the tricks being used to tell the tale. Still, the read is full of mystery, political infighting, action, and no easy answers and results in a 382 book that will keep you guessing most of the way through. J. Mark Bertrand has a fairly decent foundation of a series to work from based on this book. It will be interesting to see how it goes in the next novel in the series, Pattern Of Wounds, scheduled to be published this July by Bethany House.
Back On Murder: A Roland March Mystery
J. Mark Bertrand
Bethany House (A Division of Baker Publishing Group)
Material supplied by the good folks of the Plano, Texas Public Library System.
Kevin R. Tipple Â©2011
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