Nothing to Hide (A Roland March Mystery)
by J. Mark Bertrand
Bethany House, 2012
Roland March, aging Houston homicide detective, is back for a third installment courtesy of Christy Award Finalist author J. Mark Bertrand. Bertrand successfully builds on the earlier Back on Murder and Pattern of Wounds in what is March’s most cohesive outing yet.
A pointing headless corpse discovered on a basketball court begins an investigation that leads March to wrestle with demons from his past. This in turn uncovers for the reader the events that propelled the detective to avenge the dead as a career. March must navigate department politics, stonewalling from the FBI and a gang of rogue mercenaries. And if anyone is happy about the current Fast & Furious gunrunning scandal it surely is Bertrand as it gives his detective story a ripped from the headlines feel (Bertrand confesses as much in an afterward).
Nothing to Hide has what every suspense novel ought to have: an unfolding, multi-layered plot that makes the reader burn the midnight oil to read just one more chapter. The writing is smooth and natural, the dialogue unforced. If you’re looking for a summer page turner to haul to the beach look no further.
But it would be a disservice to dismiss Nothing to Hide as simply an ephemeral summer novel. Bertrand is not only writing exciting fiction, he is also attempting to rescue the notion of “Christian fiction” altogether. Christian fiction is its own ghettoized genre. The Christian fiction shelves are filled with “safe” romance novels with a strong moral message, likely a dramatic conversion story climax and a modestly clad female on the cover. (Yes, I recognize this is an over simplification of the Christian fiction landscape, but it’s closer to reality than anyone should be comfortable with.)
That this is our culture’s understanding of Christian fiction is an insult to the foundations of all of Western literature, which for over a thousand years was to a letter “Christian” in its approach and assumptions. This began to bifurcate with the secularization of our culture, and what was presented as Christian art became not the standard, the cultural norm, but rather a bowdlerized imitation of a pop secular world.
Bertrand shows with his three Roland March novels that he is a serious writer within his chosen genre of hard boiled detective fiction. But he has also flipped the tables on the assumptions of the modern Christian novel. Rather than kidnapping the police procedural, cleaning it up and dragging it to Bethany House and LifeWay Christian, Bertrand has instead dragged them to the serious detective story.
We are reminded of our Christian literary heritage with the novel’s allusions and overt references both to Dante’s Inferno and the classic Song of Roland. Will March blow the olifant as overwhelming danger surrounds him? Is hell simply a construct of our own making, created to punish those we deem deserving of it, or is there true justice? Bertrand plays with the literary background, reminds us of it, but does not slavishly follow the storylines of old. He has his own story to tell.
Some have been frustrated with the perceived lack of a proper spiritual arc for March, his failure to play the Christian fiction game. But Bertrand is playing the long game, much like the enigmatic Magnum in his novel. It’s not about a contrived conversion scene for the hero March, but rather about his struggle with the implications of good and evil, judgment, choice and destiny. It’s even about March wrestling with the notion of conversion itself. Playing on the age old cliche, Bertrand very directly asks does the foxhole produce atheists or believers? And if it produces both, what is the true character of those men?
Roland March continues to be a hero worth reading about. He is a fallen hero seeking redemption in a fallen world. For that redemption he first must seek, and with gracious help he will find.