Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Review: A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain

I have long been on record as being a total coward when it comes to my reading but recently I've been trying to open myself up to some mysteries. I've been looking for not quite cozies but not nightmare-inducing either and when I read the jacket copy for A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain, I thought it sounded like it might hit that sweet spot. Note to self that if the main character is an FBI profiler and she's tracking a serial killer, even if she has time traveled from the present to 1815, the book is likely to be far too gruesome for my overly active imagination. I had to sit and read this through in one sitting to make sure that the baddie was appropriately punished and I still managed to have nightmares about the graphic and truly evil murders. I loved the premise but the rest was too much and over the top for me, in multiple ways.

Opening in 1815 with a clandestine gathering that culminates in an unnamed man reveling in the fear and pain of a specially chosen prostitute, the book then moves to present day US. Kendra Donovan is a former prodigy and the only woman on an elite FBI SWAT team tasked with taking down a terrorist. She has uncovered a larger web of involvement than her superiors anticipated and when she lobbies to be on the field team to make the bust, she is granted her wish. So she's in the thick of it when the mission goes horribly wrong, team members are killed, and Kendra herself is badly wounded. After a long and grueling recovery, she is determined to deliver justice to the man who got away. In trying to administer justice, she inexplicably stumbles through time, ending up in 1815, where, posing as a servant, she will be caught up in the dangerous investigation into a serial killer.

Aside from the grisly descriptions of murders, which were always going to be hard for me to read, McElwain has done a beautiful job describing the era, the clothing, and stately Aldridge castle. Her characters are, unfortunately, less believably drawn than the setting is. Kendra, despite being incredibly smart, can be beyond stupid in order to move the plot along. She ignores her own highly specialized training during the investigation, placing herself in dangerous situations, she is incapable of even trying to fit into the time and society in which she finds herself despite knowing she absolutely must stay at the castle to have any chance of going back through the wormhole to her own time, and she cannot simply observe rather than diving in head first before thinking, a trait that actually wouldn't serve her well as a profiler, a job at which she is said to have excelled. The reader is repeatedly told she is incredibly smart but, frustratingly, the bulk of the plot happens to her rather than because of her. And it may seem silly to say that there are unbelievable things in a murder mystery predicated on time travel, but avoidable anachronisms in other pieces of the plot belittle the reader's intelligence. For instance, few of the men, gentry all, exhibit more than a token resistance to not only a woman, but a woman of the servant class, taking charge of an entire investigation and ordering them about. This is passed off as entertaining to them but they will allow it because they recognize her superior intellect and because of her American origins. And Kendra's language is so unchecked and modern that it should be almost incompehensible to the men who rarely seem to need a translation. Their immediate acceptance of everything unusual about Kendra is simply a signal of how enlightened, forward thinking, and intelligent they are.

The narration focuses mainly on Kendra but there are occasional shifts to other characters which, while illuminating their take on this odd person in their midst, also effectively rules them out as the murderer, despite the fact that they should be suspects right up until the final reveal. Brief chapters through the murderer's eyes are dropped into the narrative very occasionally to highlight his utter depravity and they are effective and rather stomach churning. There are quite a few historical mistakes, multiple etiquette breaches (in addition to the ones that Kendra seemingly makes intentionally), and the romance in the end feels tacked on for no apparent reason. Yet something kept me reading. I personally won't be reading the next in the series, mainly for the gory bits, but I can see why people who can suspend disbelief would want to continue on despite the very obvious flaws here. This had a strange and intriguing premise, lacked in the execution, and yet I almost liked it. Rather a conundrum at that.

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