Recently I sat down to a marathon watching of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. I adore David Suchet’s portrayal of the funny little Belgian detective. I’m not so keen on Christie as a read, but I relish Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot engaging his little gray cells to solve the crime. I am a fan of BBC’s Mystery series as well. I bring home all kinds of detective reads, especially if they are series-based. I have to wonder why I am drawn to books that dwell on someone dying in order to form the plot conflict.
If I were to analyze my interest I think I would have to go back to my discovery of the Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald Sobol when I was in school. I thrilled to the challenge of solving the mystery before going to the answer page. Kid lit didn’t dwell much on dead bodies, but I had become hooked on suspense and intrigue. Somehow I went from solving the case of the stolen bike to homicides in my reading habits. I would much prefer the mystery without the corpse, yet those don’t seem to be as popular or readily available. My compromise is cozy mysteries where body count is not so grisly. I have discovered there is a entire culture of cozy out there. My faves so far include Mrs Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman, and the Evans Constable series by Rhys Bowen. Minimal murder is a prerequisite as is sheet hopping of characters and profanity profundity. Prudish, aren’t I? I like to practice safe read, I know. So you can see it’s difficult for me to whet my appetite for mystery if I’m squeamish about death, violence, sex, and swearing.
This brings me to my latest read. I fulfill my new authors, new reads list by freelance book reviewing. While I have reviewed for several journals over the years, I mainly review for the Christian Library Journal and I have discovered Christian fiction is becoming quite amazing. It used to be dominated by prairie romances and predictable soft plots of which I am not a fan. Then Frank Peretti, Davis Bunn, Ted Dekker, and Robert Whitlow came along. I discovered Terri Blackstock and Dee Henderson as well. My latest find is J. Mark Bertrand. His Roland March series is riveting. The protagonist, Detective Roland March, is a hard-boiled Houston homicide cop who has fallen from grace and is slowly working his way back up. His character looks at Christianity from the outside and makes one ponder at the platitudes offered to the “unsaved.” The plots involve grisly murders, the type where if the book became a movie I would be too squeamish to watch. Then here comes the question: Why am I reading these books? Answer? Darn good writing. Bertrand provides a plot filled with dips, twists, and characters with dimension. His prose is sharp as is the voice. It also fulfills my safe plot requirements, even though the murders are often gruesome. I also appreciate how Bertrand gives us a protagonist who interacts with various Christians and comes up with some insightful perspectives when pressurized about his beliefs. In this passage March is trying to explain to Carter, his renter who is also a youth pastor, why he is not keen on going to church. From pages 120 to 122:
Carter is saying to March:
“With the kind of work you do, the kind of things you see, there has to be a corrosive effect. You’re always in the presence of evil. When we met, I got a firsthand taste, so I think I have an idea what it must be like.”
March tries to explain how he sees the underlying corruption of the human condition while Carter dwells on the good, surrounding himself with the good.
“Carter, listen to me. You mean well, I realize that. But there’s no magic formula or platitude they taught you in seminary that’s going to turn me into one of you. It’s not gonna happen. You have no idea what I’ve seen and what I’ve done. Trust me, if you did, you’d be like me, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
March and Carter then get into a heavy discussion about Carter’s viewpoint of how knowing God is loving and all-powerful and can bring good out of evil. March counters with,
“…if there really was some loving, all-powerful force out there, I wouldn’t be hunting a man down for plunging a bowie knife in a woman’s chest and then stripping her and using her dead body as a pincushion….Now, what you’re saying is that, seeing something like that, I should be comforted. I should feel good knowing that as bad as it looks, it was all for the best. God was up in heaven watching it go down, and even though he didn’t lift a finger, he sure wishes us well. I’m sorry, Carter, but that doesn’t do it for me. If I believed that, I think I’d be miserable.”
Carter points out March is miserable.
And this is why I am a fan of Bertrand’s writing. He provides an excellent whodunit and manages to stir up tough questions and nudge some comfort zones.
I sometimes wonder if the genre “Christian murder mystery” is an oxymoron. After all, dwelling on death, murder, deceit, and lies isn’t Sunday School curriculum. Then again, it is. Bertrand points out through March that there is evil in the world and ignoring it doesn’t mean it goes away. Carter’s character makes us see that there is a means of coping with that evil and not letting it get the best of us.
I think I answered my concern about being drawn to murder mysteries: I like seeing the bad guy get caught because in real life the bad guy often gets away.