Hello – and welcome to 2018! Or, at least, Alaina’s Reviews of Books She’s Read in 2018.
A Murder In Time was the other book I had requested from the library at the same time as The Ring and the Crown. The Yarmouth Library had the second book in the series (A Twist In Time) but not this title, the first; so an inter-library loan was requested. The plot, when I read the blurb on Goodreads, sounded like a cross between Outlander and an FBI procedural, and I was intrigued.
Reader, I was mightily disappointed.
Now, before I get into this, for all y’all who may be new to That’s What She Read, let me tell you a bit about my process. I have been reading a ton of library books in the past couple of years, which is great – it gets me out of my house, and for all my kvetching about the lack of first titles in series that Yarmouth suffers from, I have been able to find books I wouldn’t normally want to read, and in some cases, enjoy them.
However, as you’re probably aware by this point, I’m rather terrible at posting “reviews” “timely” – and yes, there are finger-quotes around both of those terms. I’ve also found that it gets harder to remember what the book was about the longer I wait to review it – and that includes any books that I’ve read that I own. So what do I do about library books, where I’m returning the book eight months prior to writing about it?
I found late last year that it’s helpful to me to take an evening – preferably at least one night before the book is due back at the library, though I’ve never been one to balk at overdue fees -, open a Word document, and type out at least the characters and some quotes I may have dogeared for later usage. If I have time or I’m on a roll, I may type up a brief synopsis of the plot as well.
“But Alaina,” you ask (and in this case the “you” is my friend Thomas, who has indeed asked me this question) – “Why don’t you just write the review before the book is due back at the library? Why do you take notes and then come back to it and rewrite it from scratch later?”
“Well,” says I, “first of all, that feels like cheating. Like I’m skipping ahead. Secondly, one of the things that sets my “reviews” apart from everyone else’s – besides the fact that my reviews tend to be of the finger-quote variety – is that I tend to take what’s going on around me and interject it into the review. In some cases, that provides context. In other cases, I let a weird event completely distract me from actually reviewing the book I’d read, but let’s be real, I’m not really “reviewing” anything anyway, so let me be me.”
So that’s where I’m at. A Murder in Time was a library book, and I can barely remember anything of the plot, save that it involved murder and time travel (I’ll get into that later). When I started to write this review, I went into my documents folder and sure enough, there was a Word doc waiting for me.
And this, dear Reader, is the entirety of that Word document’s contents:
So – on the one hand, January!Alaina had a lot more faith in Future!Alaina than she ultimately deserved. On the other hand … for fuck’s fuckin’ sake, Alaina, get your shit together.
ANYWAY. I went to the review of the book over on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books to get familiar with the plot and the characters again, and I had taken numerous pictures of quotes from the book (because I was clearly so super-lazy back in January that I didn’t even want to take the time to type anything up), so in January!Alaina’s defense, she may have left enough bread crumbs to allow Current!Alaina to “review” A Murder in Time.
Here we go.
Kendra Donovan is an FBI agent. But not just an FBI agent – a super-young FBI agent, who was a child prodigy because she was – I KID YOU NOT – a eugenics test tube baby.
If he [Kendra’s boss, and no, I can’t remember his name] felt a little squeamish about dealing with her, he was careful to keep that hidden. It had been his decision eight months ago to pull her out of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, where she’d been using her profiling and computer skills to work on the country’s most vicious serial killer cases. It had given him a jolt to meet her in person, though. He put his reaction down to her age – only twenty-six, for Christ’s sake. But he’d read her file; he knew who she was. Hell, he knew what she was. The offspring of two scientists who advocated eugenics, she’d been a child prodigy, landing at Princeton when she was only fourteen. By the time she was eighteen, she’d gotten degrees in advanced computer science, psychology, and criminology. No wonder the Bureau had wanted her badly enough to circumvent their age requirement of twenty-three to get her in. Kendra Donovan was a capable agent, Carson knew. [Oh, his name was Carson. Whatever.] [p. 3]
What is it with me and books involving surprise!eugenics?
So Kendra’s super-smart, super-determined, and has major parent issues. As we see after her mission goes tits-up and her father has to visit her in the hospital:
“What’re you doing here?” She sounded a little breathless, but otherwise steady. “I’m the one with the head injury, but apparently you forgot that you disowned me.”
“Don’t be impertinent, Kendra.” Her father’s mouth compressed into a thin line. “I received a phone call from Associate Director Leeds, who suggested that if I wanted to keep doing my research, I should visit you.”
Kendra frowned. “I’m not following. What does your research have to do with me?”
“I’m working at the Fellowship Institute in Arizona—”
“On human genome research. I know.”
“Then you should know that the government is our largest donor.”
Kendra remembered the look of pity in the associate director’s eyes. “Ah. I see. Leeds blackmailed you. That’s why you’re here.” Not because her father wanted to see her. Heaven forbid that he actually cared. And odd how that hurt. She hadn’t seen her father in a dozen years, but he still had that power. [p. 34]
He’s a Bad Dad, yo.
After a few months of recuperation, Kendra is released from the hospital and physical therapy and now she’s ready for her next mission: revenge. (The last mission she was on didn’t just send her to the hospital – it also sent quite a few of her colleagues to the morgue.) She gets a lead on the culprit and follows him to Scotland, where the culprit (no, I didn’t write his name down, because he means absolutely nothing to the plot. I’mma call him MacGuffin) is attending a fancy period dress party for no other reason than to get Kendra into period clothing.
Kendra dresses up as a maid to blend in with the crowd and follows MacGuffin into a secret staircase. There’s a weird event – like she’s falling through a vortex, or maybe she feels like she gets shot; I can’t remember if she loses consciousness at all, but something weird happens in the stairway.
When she’s able to get to the top of the stairs she comes in contact with a scientist of some sort who’s very surprised to see her. He speaks very strangely and old-timey, and wants to know why Kendra is in the room, and what happened to her hair (it’s cut in a short bob). She manages to come up with a lie that she’s a lady’s maid and he buys it, so she is sent downstairs to get her tasks.
PLEASE NOTE: At this point, I, the Reader of this book, knew that Kendra had traveled back in time. (And not just because it was on the dust jacket.) Kendra is still figuring out what happened, though, so we’ve got a few pages of dramatic irony to get through.
She meets Rose, a tweeny maid (meaning she’s between downstairs and a lady’s maid, not that she’s a tween – although she is young) and Rose takes Kendra to meet Mrs. Beeton, who I’m assuming is the Mrs. Beeton.
The older woman flashed them a hard look. “We’re a mite busy today, Rose,” she said, and handed the iron to her assistant, who immediately transferred it to the hearth to heat up again.
“Aye, Mrs. Beeton.” Rose nodded. “But miss ‘ere needs a dress.”
Mrs. Beeton wiped the sweat from her brow. “What kinda dress?”
“We don’t have time to sew a new dress.”
“She can ‘ave Jenny’s old dress. Since she ran off to Bath with Mr. Kipper and all.”
“Ooh. And a right scandal that was. Not even a by-your-leave!” Mrs. Beeton sniffed, and gave Kendra a measuring look. “You part of the temporary help?”
“She’s been ‘ired on,” Rose put in.
“What happened to your hair? You been ill?”
“She’s better now,” said Rose. [p. 124]
Here’s the thing – maybe it’s because Outlander did it better; maybe it’s because Back to the Future is a real formative influence on me. But it felt like it took forever for Kendra to catch on that she had been sent back in time somehow. And unlike Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser, Kendra Donovan is not great at blending in. Between the bob haircut and her need to get involved in a murder investigation that’s going on, she stands out like an extremely sore thumb.
So yeah – in addition to strange women getting thrown into time vortexes, there’s also someone going around slitting the throats of prostitutes from London. The Duke and his nephew, Alec Sutcliffe, are trying to figure out who the killer may be, and they are very reluctant to listen to a headstrong young maid who is talking about forensics and other un-ladylike things.
As I kept reading, the investigative plot started to feel more and more like a Catherine Coulter FBI thriller, and I wasn’t exactly pleased. I mean, y’all should know how I feel about Catherine Coulter FBI novels by now. (Is it time for me to read The Target? Should I write another verse of The Rant Song?) With A Murder In Time, I felt like Ms. McElwain relied on Kendra’s internal monologue to sort out Kendra’s character, and it wasn’t smooth.
First, there’s this, where Kendra is trying to tell her new 19th century friends about profiling:
“I’d need more victims, though, before I can identify it as a signature.”
Kendra hesitated. She was giving them more information than maybe she should. Though in the latter half of this century Dr. Thomas Bond would offer up a profile on Jack the Ripper, she was introducing a lexicon that wouldn’t be part of criminal investigative analysis for another century, at least. Was she changing the future?
Dammit. She didn’t know. And she couldn’t worry about it. If she was going to do any good here, she needed to think and act like an FBI profiler. [p. 186]
Towards the end of the novel, the author makes Kendra realize she’d been kind of judgy:
The doctor, Kendra realized suddenly, wasn’t the only one who’d been hampered by prejudices. If she were honest, she’d thought little of her nineteenth-century counterparts. She’d judged them and, because they were different, had found them wanting. It shamed her. These people might not have the sophisticated tools of her era, but they were all intelligent. She might not be able to trust them with her time-traveling secret, but she could trust them in this quest for truth and justice. [p. 369]
But that type of characterization doesn’t feel earned to me – it’s like the author realized, “oh, wow, Kendra should have a realization about herself just before she gets kidnapped by the killer.”
I think the most egregious characterization of Kendra’s is the really out-there references thrown in around her. For instance – and please, remember as you read this, that Kendra is in her mid-twenties, in the second decade of the 21st century:
Kendra hadn’t known what to expect from a nineteenth-century detective, but Magnum, P.I. he was not. [p. 197]
Would Magnum, P.I. be your first choice for a detective from the modern era? I guess she felt weird comparing him to Sherlock Holmes, who admittedly was a nineteenth-century detective, but … I dunno, I guess Kendra never watched Veronica Mars, which is a damned shame.
Kendra has also apparently never dated anyone, ever:
[Kendra] shook off her sense of amazement, and tried to pretend she was watching a period play. There was a lot of flirting going on, plenty of fluttering of ivory fans and eyelashes. It was weird to to think that in another two hundred years people would flirt by pole dancing, twerking, and sexting. [p. 130]
Okay, so admittedly, I have been very open about the fact that I don’t have any idea when people are flirting with me. One of my friends asked me a while ago, if one of my other friends ever tried to hit on me, how would I react, and my actual response was “he’d have to be extremely blatant for me to get that he was actively hitting on me.” Friend: “But what if he was and you got it?” Me: “I guess my first reaction would be to ask him if he’d fallen down and hit his head on something hard.” Because my instinct tells me that someone’s more likely to be suffering from a concussion than possibly be attracted to me? That’s messed up.
Having said that – I do know that people do not flirt by pole dancing, or by going up to people in bars and twerking at them without at least saying “hi” first.
(I guess some people could say that strippers flirt by pole dancing, but MY DUDE, that is a paying job that a woman has sought out and her job is to make you think she’s into you, but SHE IS NOT. Tip her, but she is NOT YOURS. Also, remember: there is no sex in the champagne room, or in the lighting booth.)
Now, compare Kendra to Rebecca, Alec Sutcliffe’s younger sister. She is ready and rarin’ to go when it comes to investigating these crimes:
“This is about the girl who was killed, is it not?”
“Becca – “
“Oh, don’t look so Friday-faced, Alec! If Miss Donovan is allowed to stay, I don’t know why I should be sent from the room. I am not a child – I’m three and twenty.” She gave both men an arch look. “And I seem to recall you applauding my study of Miss Wollstonecraft’s work. You have always encouraged my artistic and intellectual pursuits.”
“For God’s sakes, Becca, we are not having a theoretical discussion in Duke’s study or the drawing room,” Alec argued impatiently. “This is not an exercise in women’s rights.”
“Oh, but that is exactly what it is, Sutcliffe!” She was no longer smiling, and her blue eyes narrowed. “For the first time, we can take the discussion out of the theoretical and apply it to the real world. Unless you were gammoning me.”
Kendra had to admire the woman. She’d neatly turned the tables on the men. If this were the twenty-first century, Lady Rebecca would’ve made a good lawyer. [p. 184]
Within a couple of lines of dialogue, I feel like I immediately know Rebecca’s character and how she and her brother get along. Maybe Ms. McElwain could write a book about her next?
One piece of dialogue that never fails to make me think of something else (similar to whenever anyone mentions something about catching someone red-handed):
“Of course, there’s another possibility.”
The Harry Potter glasses glinted in the sunshine as he looked at her. “What, pray tell, would that be, Miss Donovan?”
“She could’ve had the stain on her coat before she met the killer,” she pointed out. “We’re assuming it happened here.”
Aldridge beamed at her. “Excellent point, my dear! Post hoc ergo propter hoc.” [p. 373]
And we all know that post hoc ergo propter hoc means “after hoc therefore, something else hoc.”
Okay, two more things and then I’ll shut up about this book. First, Ms. McElwain plays to her strengths in at least one area. In her real life, Ms. McElwain is an editor for CBS Soaps in Depth, where she focuses on The Young and the Restless. In A Murder in Time, many chapters end on cliffhangers where characters have an exclamation of something, like this:
If possible, Gabriel seemed to pale even more. “No, Thomas is his manservant …”
Rebecca lowered her handkerchief and stared at Gabriel. “I beg your pardon?”
He raked a shaking hand over his hair, disheveling it even more. “God. I’ve been a fool. A bloody fool.”
Rebecca was taken aback by the look in Gabriel’s eyes: utter despair.
“If I had my wits about me, I might’ve saved the maid.”
“What are you saying, Gabriel?”
His mouth twisted. “Thomas isn’t the monster. But I know who the monster is.”
Rebecca put a hand to her throat, felt her pulse leap beneath her fingertips. “Who?” [p. 453]
That’s it; that’s the end of the chapter. Can’t you hear dramatic organ music whipping underneath that dialogue?
And please, let me reassure you: I have nothing against soap operas! I am extremely proud of my heritage of watching All My Children for years – for years!! I refused to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer at first because I knew Sarah Michelle Gellar as Kendall Hart, illegitimate daughter of Erica Kane! Erica had Kendall at 14, following a rape; she put the baby up for adoption and completely forgot about it, only to have Kendall come roaring into Pine Valley looking for the silver spoon she felt she deserved! Kendall tried to seduce her stepfather, Dmitri, and when he rejected her she accused him of raping her, which made Erica have a flashback to her own rape, and in an attempt to defend herself and Kendall, she STABBED DMITRI WITH A LETTER OPENER!
Vintage All My Children was THE BEST, you guys.
The last thing that Ms. McElwain did that I have to mention is: she could not resist this line:
Kendra’s lips curved with an irony her audience would never understand. “I always say there’s no time like the present.” [p. 189]
Great Scott – she had to make a time joke.
Look, overall, the book didn’t suck – there were just some parts that … could have been better. There’s a good chance that I’m probably going to read the next book in the series; but at least now I know what to expect.
Grade for A Murder in Time: 1.5 stars