Q&A: J. Mark Bertrand
Homicide detective Roland March is a tough man and an even tougher cop. In J. Mark Bertrand's latest book, Nothing to Hide, Detective March comes across one of his most dangerous cases to date - one that involves the FBI, the Mexican cartels, and an inside cover-up. But March will let nothing get between himself and bringing a killer to justice.
WHERE DID THE IDEA FOR NOTHING TO HIDE COME FROM?
From the start of the series, I’ve wanted to drop Roland March into the middle of a paranoid conspiracy thriller––an homage to the great spy thrillers of the 1970s. But March is a homicide cop, not a secret agent, so I needed a story that would bring the sleuthing and the stealth together in a plausible way. I found the inspiration in a real-life incident. Several years ago, a man claiming to be an ex-CIA officer was shot and killed during a traffic stop by the Houston Police Department. The government disavowed knowledge of him, but he’d been a member of the local fraternity of former intelligence officers (who presumably wouldn’t have let an impostor through the door). Online, a number of conspiracy theories have been floated about the incident. This served as a very loose inspiration––a way of tying the world of law enforcement and espionage together.
SOME OF THE PLOT - FOR EXAMPLE, A GOVERNMENT OPERATION RUNNING GUNS TO THE MEXICAN CARTELS - SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES. HOW DID YOU RESEARCH THE STORY?
The gun-running operation in Nothing to Hide was inspired by research I did into the ATF’s controversial Project Gunrunner, including the Justice Department’s November 2010 review of the operation. When I turned in the manuscript, I still worried that the nature of my fictional operation would strain credibility. After all, who would believe a government agency would arrange and facilitate the shipment of so many weapons into the hands of one of the most vicious of the cartels? Then the Fast and Furious scandal made the headlines and I stopped worrying. (Or should I say that, like all of us, I had bigger things to worry about.)
I am not a “ripped from the headlines” type of writer, but I do like incorporating historical notes into my fiction. The crime lab scandal that dogs the Houston Police Department throughout the March novels is based on reality. March’s childhood neighborhood—the Heights—really was menaced by a serial killer, as I write about in Pattern of Wounds. At the same time, this is fiction. I bend the facts as needed to serve the story.
DANTE'S INFERNO PLAYS A BIG ROLE IN THE BOOK. WHY IS THAT?
The Divine Comedy is divided in three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. So in the middle of life, Dante goes on a journey through hell and purgatory to heaven. In Nothing to Hide, I flip the order around. March’s journey starts in paradise, descends through a personal and professional limbo, and ends in a living nightmare he never saw coming at the start of his investigation. Like Dante, he has guides along the way, sees some amazing and terrible things, and confronts his personal Lucifer.
There’s another epic poem that figures into the action: The Song of Roland. Only Roland March’s great battle is fought with guns, not swords.
IN NOTHING TO HIDE, YOU FLASH BACK TO ROLAND MARCH'S VERY FIRST MURDER CASE, WHEN HE WAS AN MP IN THE ARMY. HE SEEMS SO YOUNG AND IDEALISTIC COMPARED TO THE MARCH OF TODAY. DO THE SAME GOALS DRIVE HIM?
Absolutely. In this novel, you discover March’s “origin story,” the incident that set him on the path to becoming the man he is today. That storyline was one of the most interesting parts of the book to write, because it’s set at Ft. Polk in Louisiana, where my uncle was an MP and I spent many wonder-filled hours as a child. For the novel, I re-imagined the scene and made it much darker. This is not a place you’d let your kids play! But for me, Ft. Polk did seem like a giant playground where people got to dress up as soldiers, shoot guns, drive around in tanks—everything you’d want to do as a boy. For March it becomes a place of disillusionment, but he also finds his calling in life.
WHY IS ROLAND MARCH SUCH A COMPELLING CHARACTER TO READ ABOUT?
Perhaps because he’s so compelling to write about. Roland March fascinates me. To write in his voice, I have to get into the man’s head, which is a strange and rewarding place to go. He carries a lot of damage, a lot of emotional baggage he doesn’t just open up and share. So there’s always this suppressed pain in the narrative. He tells his story, and you know there’s something held back, something under the surface threatening to bubble up. And then it does and the consequences are nail-biting.
March is one of those love-him-or-hate-him kind of characters. Some readers identify with him completely. He makes mistakes. He makes poor choices. He can be stupid and noble all at once. And occasionally he has a stroke of genius or just gets lucky. He is one of us, in other words—a guy you can relate to, doing a job that is both fascinating and appalling. I think Roland March is someone whose quest you can live through vicariously and learn something about yourself.