These three books were nominated for the INSPY Awards for “faith-driven” literature in the Mystery/Thriller category. Two of the three made it to the shortlist of five novels in the category considered to be the best of the nominations. My question is: can Christian (or faith-driven) and thriller go together? I’d answer my own question with a qualified “yes”.
I read The Bishop by Steven James first in this orgy of faith-y thriller mysteries, and I’d say it’s both the best of the three and the most problematic. It’s problematic, for Christian readers at least, because it’s grisly and graphic. FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers is dealing with a pair of serial killers who murder for the fun of it, for the thrill of the chase and the game. The murders this pair commit are disturbingly violent and torture-filled, and the entire novel reminds me of the TV show Bones, a show that comes close to making the “art of murder and torture” seem to be an appealing and intellectually stimulating vocation. Murder by using chimpanzees as surrogate attackers or slow torture/murder by being chained to a rotting corpse are not creative acts of intelligence.
On the other hand, Mr. James does an excellent job of working the philosophical and moral questions raised by a detective’s job into his story. Agent Bowers has a teenage stepdaughter, Tessa, for whom he is the responsible guardian, and as an intelligent young adult still forming her own worldview, Tessa brings up a lot of food for thought, all in context with the story. There’s a wonderful discussion of detective fiction, Arthur Conan Doyle vs. Edgar Allan Poe in chapter eighty-one. (The chapters are short.) And in a couple of other chapters, the characters discuss human nature and whether being “true to oneself” is a good thing or a bad. All of this philosophical and religious speculation is neatly embedded in the story and not at all awkward or pace-slowing. Bottom line, it’s a good, well- paced novel IF you don’t mind the repulsive details of the crimes. The Bishop is the fourth book in The Bowers Files series. It can stand alone, but there are a lot of references to previous books and cases.
Fatal Judgement by Irene Hannon is the first book in a new series called Guardians of Justice. It’s the one of these three that didn’t make the INSPY shortlist, but it’s a creditable action mystery with a romantic angle that did a decent job of keeping my interest to the end, even though I knew what the outcome would be, romantically and mysteriously speaking. U.S. marshall Jake Taylor is assigned to protect a federal judge whose sister has been murdered. The possibilities are that the judge was the real target or that she is the next target. Marshall Jake Taylor already knows Judge Liz Michaels, and he doesn’t much like her. Nevertheless, a job is a job. Can Jake find the killer before he strikes again? And was he somehow mistaken about Judge Michaels?
The third book in my own trilogy of thrillers, Back on Murder by J. Mark Bertrand, was especially interesting to me because it’s set in Houston. The street names, the restaurants, the malls, the hurricane (Ike), and everything else is authentic Houston-flavored. Spotting the local references was fun. Back on Murder is a police procedural, heavy on the detective work and the politics within HPD. (Names and characters are, I assume, totally fictional to protect the innocent.) Detective Roland March is a veteran Houston cop, disillusioned and near burn-out with a secret in his past that has almost destroyed his marriage and his career. The current case, which takes place in the fall of 2008, concerns a houseful of dead gang-bangers, the missing daughter of a well-known Houston evangelist, a few crooked cops, and a Cars for Criminals sting operation. Could they all be related, or is the relationship between such disparate elements only wishful thinking on the part of March who wants to revive his career in the homicide division?
I can’t promise you’ll enjoy Back on Murder as much as I did. As I said, the Houston elements in the novel captured my interest immediately. The story was good, however, and the pace was O.K., a little slow sometimes and almost frenetic towards the end. I do think my dad, a fan of Ed McBain and the Tv show Law and Order, would have enjoyed this novel. And I have the second in the series, Pattern of Wounds, on reserve at the library.
None of these three novels is particularly preachy or even faith-driven, as far as I could tell. Christianity is an element in the novels; some of the characters, usually not the main character, profess to be Christians. But if you’re looking for a clear (or even subtle) presentation of the gospel in these books, you won’t find it. The Bishop raises interesting questions related to faith and worldview. Fatal Judgement, in a low-key way, “preaches” church-going and a return to faith as a foundation in the midst of suffering and problems. Back on Murder presents the story of a cynical, heart-wounded cop associating with some faithful Christians who certainly don’t wear their faith on their sleeves. However, I’m anticipating that Detective Roland March will have some questions of his own about Christianity and a life lived in faith, perhaps in the next book.