Last week, I was down and out for the count due to having caught some kind of airborne plague from one of my coworkers, and because I had nothing else better to do, I figured I should just catch up on my reading. However, nothing would stick: even books that I know I should like, because they were in my favorite genres and/or were written by authors I trusted, just couldn’t hold my attention for more than a few pages before I felt the need to just move on to something else.
In the end, what did stick was a book I’d picked up out of sheer curiosity because there’d been some positive buzz floating around the bookternet about it (apparently because it had been selected for the Big Library Read). That book is A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain, the first in the Kendra Donovan series.
A Murder in Time begins with the protagonist, FBI agent Kendra Donovan, on the cusp of an operation that could potentially be the highlight of her career. But when the operation goes horrifically wrong, Kendra is left to pick up the pieces – and decides that what she really wants is revenge. She carefully plans one final mission, one that will exact retribution for all the friends and colleagues she lost on the day of the disastrous operation, only for the universe to throw her one more curveball. Hurled back in time to the 1800s, Kendra attempts to fit in by joining the staff of the great manor house she has found herself in, hoping to find a way back home as soon as possible. However, when the dead body of a young woman turns up on the estate’s grounds, Kendra thinks that maybe, just maybe, she was sent back in time for a reason: to identify this innocent woman’s killer – and do so before another victim turns up.
Now, based on the blurb alone, it might be easy to see why this book managed to catch and hold my attention while I was sick. It’s right up my alley: a mix of murder mystery and time-travel historical novel, and in a Regency setting, to boot. What’s not to like? And the thing is, I actually did like it while I was sick: it kept me entertained through my fever and my sniffles, through my low-grade persistent headaches and sore throat. Anything that can get me to ignore all of my flu symptoms has got to be an excellent read, right?
Well, that’s not quite true. Now that I’m better, I can see that there are aspects of this novel that I might have ignored while I was sick, but which I can’t ignore now that I’m well – and taken all together, those aspects make me look at my flu meds and wonder what kind of magical mystery ingredient is in them that they can make even something this bad read so good.
First on my list of complaints is the way Kendra’s colleagues were characterized. Based on the blurb, I think it’s clear to suppose that the reader is supposed to like Kendra’s colleagues, because no sane person would want to avenge people he or she didn’t like.
But how could anyone possibly like colleagues who say things like this:
“Make that fifty and a date with Kendra.” Noone shot her a lopsided, lascivious grin. It didn’t matter that he was, at forty-nine, old enough to be her father, and married, to boot.
She shot him a cool look. “Funny. I don’t remember putting myself on the auction block, Noone.”
“Ah, come on, sweetheart. Everybody needs an incentive.”
Deliberately, Kendra lifted the hand that held the SIG Sauer, weighted it with silky ease. “Just how much incentive do you need?”
There are other examples like this scattered throughout the first chapter of the book, and none of them gets any better – in fact, they just get worse.
Which makes me wonder: Are these the guys Kendra’s supposed to want to avenge? Really? Really? I don’t know how Kendra – who supposedly fought and clawed her way into this operation, who fought for the right to be there – can conceivably want to avenge anyone who treats her the way these guys do. I understand that the kind of behavior they display is par-for-the-course for any male-dominated field, especially law enforcement, but if the goal here is to make the reader sympathetic to Kendra’s desire to avenge them, this is not how to achieve that goal. By the end of the chapter I was glad most of them were dead, and felt that Kendra’s desire to avenge them – at the cost of her career, I might add, a career she wanted and desperately fought for – kind of an overreaction.
Bad decision-making skills aside, Kendra is actually kind of tolerable as a character, but I wouldn’t exactly call her very well fleshed-out. She’s a little colorless, actually, but not to the point that she’s utterly dull. The same can be said for practically every other character in this book – which is kind of sad, because if no one in particular stands out, what’s the point? While I don’t expect all the characters to be likable, I do expect them to be interesting, at least. Kendra manages to meet that requirement despite a distinct lack of other notable qualities, but everyone else is kind of interchangeable. This is rather sad, especially since there’s another important female character in this story, who was supposed to be like Kendra’s 19th century counterpoint, but she never really gets developed in any significant way. We could have had two awesome female sleuths instead of one, but as always, the universe reminds us that we can’t always have what we want.
And speaking of wanting things, this book apparently has a romantic subplot in it. I wasn’t really looking for it, nor even expecting it, but still: a little romance never hurt a story, so long as it’s managed well. Unfortunately, this book does the farthest thing from manage its romantic subplot well, because it comes almost from out of nowhere: it only really became obvious in the novel’s latter third. There are “hints” earlier in the book, so it wasn’t totally unexpected, but those hints are the farthest thing from subtle. By the time the romance is in full swing it actually distracts from other, more important things – like finding the killer.
I suppose now is a good time to ask: If I have very little good to say about this book, why in the world did I read it in the first place? I’m not entirely sure myself, but I think it’s because while I was sick, I wasn’t really thinking about all the things I find problematic about it. I was just letting them slide and focusing solely on the plot: a rather unoriginal murder mystery, but sufficiently entertaining to keep me reading despite my malaise. But now that I’m reviewing it and thinking about it without the interference of illness, I can’t just ignore the things that are wrong with it.
Overall, A Murder in Time is a sufficiently entertaining murder mystery – as long as the reader is either willing to overlook its flaws, or is incapable of seeing those flaws due to an inability to really focus on them. This makes it the perfect sickbed read: sufficiently entertaining without demanding too much of the reader’s energy. Take it out of that context, however, and the entire thing falls apart at the seams. A two-star read, for sure.
A Murder in Time is available in multiple formats from Amazon; click on the title to find them all.