A Murder in Time Had Me Checking My Watch
Book: A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain
Rating: 2/5 questionably titled aristocrats
Recommended if you like: Outlander, or if you want to see the main character of The Blacklist thrown into the middle of Pride and Prejudice.
First line: “He was in hell.”
Published: April 2016 by Pegasus Books; 498 pages.
Pegasus Books provided a review copy of this book.
A Murder in Time boasts an intriguing premise (and a gorgeous cover) that grabbed my interest immediately – elite FBI agent Kendra Donovan accidentally time travels to Regency England and has to solve a murder mystery in a society very different from her own, without any of her usual crime-solving technology. I hoped for an Outlander-esque time travel saga driven by the solving of a central mystery, with plenty of space in the book’s near-500 pages for interesting commentary on how the choices people have now and in the 1800s are influenced by their gender and social status. Unfortunately, nothing about the execution lived up to the promise of the concept.
The first, and perhaps main, problem was with main character Kendra herself. I am always very hesitant to use the term Mary Sue – it’s so gendered, so often used to attack female characters for traits admired in male ones. But Kendra here embodies a lot of what people tend to complain about when they’re using that term: she’s so completely perfect, the most beautiful and smartest woman anyone has ever met. The explanation for this is that her parents were into eugenics, which – well, at least I’ll give the author some points for just going there. But it makes for a very frustrating reading experience.
Even while she knows almost everything in the world, though, Kendra knows nothing when it’s convenient to the plot, and there’s often not much of a rhyme or reason to this. Sure, Kendra can pick locks because she profiled a lockpick once, but she’s apparently never learned even as much about early nineteenth-century society as you’d get from a careful viewing of a few Jane Austen movies. When you have a near omniscient character, you need to poke some holes in her knowledge base so she doesn’t just solve all the mysteries immediately, but that must be done in a way that feels organic and cohesive to the character.
The time travel itself was fine, I suppose – I tend to be the type of reader willing to go with however time travel is explained as long as there’s some sort of internal consistency, so if you’re into analyzing the scientific plausibility, you may have a different opinion. To me, the biggest obstacle to making time travel fiction work is not the mechanics of the time travel itself, but rather the characters’ reactions, and that’s where this book (like many others) let me down. Characters are much too quick to accept the fact that they’ve time traveled (or that they’re dealing with time travelers); they adapt far too easily and end up in jail or psychiatric facilities much less frequently than you’d expect. To some extent, that’s necessary for the story to progress, but A Murder in Time had some particularly egregious examples of people barely batting an eye at the idea of time travel.
And the actual mystery in this mystery novel? Well, I won’t spoil it, but the denouement is not particularly satisfying. It’s fine, the solution hangs together reasonably well, but the mystery was never compelling enough to distract me from any of the other issues I had with the novel. I read a lot of mystery novels and I don’t need each and every case to be a brilliant puzzle – character and setting and tone can go a long way – but when those other elements are also weak, a serviceable-but-not-great mystery plot turns the whole book into a slog.
Meanwhile, the framing story, set amidst current FBI investigations, just felt unnecessary. It went on way too long at the beginning of the novel, especially because it was barely related to anything that happened once Kendra time traveled, and when it reappeared at the end I was genuinely startled to realize I was supposed to care about what was going on at the FBI in Kendra’s absence.
It seems that the reader really is supposed to care about this modern FBI framework because it sets things up very clearly for a second book. And while the specific murder of A Murder in Time is solved during the book, as you’d expect, things in 1815 and Kendra’s position in the two worlds are left very much in flux. If I’d enjoyed the book, I’m sure this ending would have left me eager for more, but instead, the conclusion was just as unsatisfying as everything that went before.
I wanted to love this but didn’t. Can you recommend anything that might scratch the same itch? Let me know in the comments!