September 8, 2011

Back On Murder ****

**** Back On Murder, J. Mark Bertrand, 2010

Note: I started rating books online 20 years ago, before Amazon existed, and developed a 0 to 4 star system. Add a star to get an equivalent Amazon rating.

First off, note another four-star book. Not many of these in a year. You should get this and read it now.

I don't recall where I first ran across Mark - somewhere online about a decade ago when I was in Honolulu and he was in Houston. We exchanged some emails. I read a short story of his and was overwhelmed. At that point I knew I wanted to read anything this guy wrote.

But then life proceded as it does and now, many years later, I'm in Texas and he's in South Dakota and I discover that he's got a contract with Bethany House and a couple of books out in a series. I downloaded the sample on my Kindle, read it, and bought the thing right then. I had the discipline to finish the bedside book I was reading before picking up Back on Murder. As soon as I finished it, I bought the second one immediately. I'll read it when I finish a few other items in the stack.

Here are a few things that stood out for me:

  • "I let her take my hand a lead me up the back stairs All is not right in my world, but one small corner is about to get noticeably better."
  • "Her gaze has a soft and sightless quality, as if her eyes were the back of a silvered mirror."
  • There is this brooding backstory hanging just out of sight for a large portion of the novel. You know there's some point at which this is going to be laid out for you. Two-thirds of the way in, you get the story, but in tight dialog, not in a big information dump. Very deftly handled.

The bottom-line is, if you like well-written police crime fiction, you should read this book. It's not quite Michael Connelly, but it's pretty dang close. Kinda like E. F. Benson vs P. G. Wodehouse. Excellent characters, March, the homocide cop who is the protagonist, the various levels of the police department, the bad guys, all of them, very well drawn. The story has plenty of tendrils, some of which fade out and others which interwine at the end, to keep you guessing.

Connelly was a crime-beat reporter. I don't know that much about Bertrand, personally, but he seems to have a surprisingly intimate knowledge of police culture and processes for a guy with an MFA. Although there was one moment that bugged me. A cop comes to March, saying he'll give him important information in exchange for an immunity deal. They talk for a while, the cop insisting on a signed deal before he'll even mention what his information is about. As I know from my extensive experience in watching cop shows and reading crime novels, you can't get a deal without some sense of what it is you have to offer and a high degree of credibility that you can deliver. So the conversation doesn't feel authentic. Cause I know these things.

This book is published by Bethany House, which is a Christian publisher, but there is no three-points-and-a-poem, come-to-Jesus moment, for which I am grateful because I find them obnoxious and typically avoid Christian fiction for that reason. There are a few notable exceptions based on quality writing and lack of cheese factor. Bertrand is now on that very short list, along with Lisa Samson, Tosca Lee, Athol Dickson, and a few others.

There was only one spot, about a third of the way in, that I felt edged the line, when a cop who is religous gets provoked and says, “What do you believe, March? About God, the universe and everything?” Which is followed by 2 or 3 paragraphs of his response. The exchange felt gratuitous. Less than a page. Minor irritation that quickly passed.


This is the first Kindle novel that I've reviewed. Having recently suffered through producing Kindle, Nook and iPad versions of the three Fred novels, paying painstaking attention to high-quality production, I'm painfully aware of bad formatting.

For a traditionally published book, the author has no control over production, so this is really a critique of the publisher and their epub production, which may or may not be outsourced.

In my humble but accurate opinion, if publishers want readers to spend $9.99 or more for an ebook, they should produce a superb quality ebook. I hired an experienced epub guy and did over a dozen proofreadings of all three versions of all three books to do everything possible to deliver them with the highest production quality, and with extras you don't get in the print books. And I'm just one guy, not a publisher. And the Fred ebooks are only $2.99. So I have little tolerance for significantly priced ebooks from major publishers, or anyone else, with poor production quality.


None. No table of contents, embedded or otherwise. No ability to skip between chapters using the right/left keys. So, if you want to skip back 7 or 8 chapters to check on something, you just have to scroll back one screen at a time, check it, and then scroll forward. Or play "guess the location" with the Go To button.


There are two ways of doing paragraphs:

  1. Indent the first line, no blank lines between paragraphs.
  2. Block style, no indent, a blank line between paragraphs.

This book does both, which wastes limited ereader screen space. Pick one is my motto.

In addition, like many print books, extra line spacing is used to indicate a scene change instead of some kind of graphic element. The problem is that with spacing between paragraphs, which doesn't normally occur in a print book, it's easy to overlook the extra space, which means you enter a new scene without realizing it and get disoriented. Not good to get knocked out of the story like that just from a lack of good formatting. I recommend some kind of graphic indication of scene change for all ebooks. Plus, it just looks nicer and doesn't cost extra to do.


I get the impression that proofreading is not as high priority for ebook production as it is for print. In this case, there is a paragraph that is right-justified with ragged left margins somewhere in there. There is also an occurence of a character's name that is hyphenated in the middle of a line, with spaces in the middle of the name, thus: Cav- allo. It's highly unlikely you would see either of these errors in a print book.


I downloaded the Nook sample. You get the front matter and a couple of chapters. The paragraph formatting is done right, indents, no linespaces. There is both an embedded and physical table of contents, but the embedded TOC only covers the front matter and the first chapter. The physical TOC covers the whole book, but it doesn't work. Touching the links doesn't take you anywhere.

If I were Bertrand, I'd send Bethany house a copy of this review.

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