by Ian G. Wilson
All fiction requires the reader to make a leap of faith that what they are reading is something that could happen, or, even if it couldn’t, to be willing to go along for the tall tale. Certain genres, such as science fiction and mystery, push the envelope a little further than literary fiction. For example, is it really likely that Sherlock Holmes could distinguish 140 different types of tobacco ash with just his magnifying glass? Or that the police would be willing to allow fuzzy old Miss Marple to involve herself in an investigation? But I think that is part of the fun with mysteries, to accept the fantastical elements and go along for the ride.
And it is quite a ride with Julie McElwain’s A Murder in Time, in which not only do we have the usual mystery and detective standards, but also some fantastical elements thrown into the mix. The story is set in a past in which there are no organized police forces and the only law officer is an FBI agent who has been thrown back in time without her gun or badge or even her modern day clothes and is left with only her wits and training to solve a crime. Like a deftly spun Banbury Tale (as McElwain’s characters refer to lies), it drew me in like a bee to a particularly exotic flower.
Kendra Donovan is the agent in question, and when an FBI raid she is involved in goes sour, she turns rogue to eliminate the man she believes responsible for the deaths of her comrades. Her quest leads her to Aldridge Castle in England, where she is suddenly ripped from the present day and transported back to the year 1815. She is hired on by the kindly Duke of Aldridge, a Renaissance man of science and progressive thought, as a servant in his household (one of more than 4000). While the Duke is intrigued by her, there are others, such as the housekeeper and the Duke’s handsome nephew, Lord Sutcliffe, who are more suspicious. The War of 1812 has just ended, so an American in England is a peculiarity, and Kendra’s modern speech mannerisms and her evasiveness on the subject of her sudden appearance in a hidden stairwell lead her to be scrutinized more closely than she would like.
Then the nude body of a woman turns up in a lake on the estate, and Kendra realizes from the marks of torture that it must be the work of a serial killer. Her knowledge of the nature of the wounds and her prediction that there will be more murders to come pique the Duke’s interest, and he tolerantly allows her to insinuate herself into the investigation. Despite his patronage, she finds it hard going in an area that is exclusively the province of men. Clear gender roles are the rule of the day, and the solving of murders is definitely not the role of women. In some respects, Kendra finds this not so different from her difficulties in being accepted among her male colleagues in the twenty-first century.
Not only are gender roles defined, but those of social class as well, and it is not until Kendra is elevated to the position of companion to Lady Rebecca, another ahead-of-her-time thinker, that she is allowed a relatively free hand in leading the investigation. Once her status is established, however, Kendra quickly builds up a picture of the killer:
“‘Not transformed. The unsub was . . . warped a long time ago. He had dark fantasies. As a child, he probably tortured and killed animals. Maybe even set fires. He was destructive. And then something set him off, a trigger of some kind that pushed him into making his terrible fantasies real.’
“The Duke gazed at her, troubled. ‘How, Miss Donovan? How does a man become a monster?’
“‘I don’t know,’ she whispered.”
McElwain’s book may well be of interest to those who love historical fiction as well as fans of mysteries. I was fascinated by the author’s attention to detail in areas of food and table manners, clothing styles, literature, and even personal hygiene. Curiosities of the era emerge as well; for example, the Duke’s sister has engaged an “ornamental hermit” to frighten the female guests at her house party, an entertainment evidently in vogue during this period. And, as there is no official police force, the nearest thing is a Bow Street Runner, a semipublic official who receives his pay not from the government, but from the Duke.
Kendra uses her FBI profiling skills to great advantage in determining the type of person capable of such horrendous crimes, and the Duke, in particular, appreciates her deductive reasoning. But when it comes to actually catching the killer, it is old-fashioned police work that is needed:
“No matter how complex an investigation, it always boiled down to the basics, Kendra thought. Canvassing the neighborhood, questioning colleagues, friends, family, neighbors. The techniques changed, but the approach remained timeless. There was something comforting in that.”
I was kept guessing as to the identity of the murderer, though I admit, this pastime is not my usual reason for reading mysteries. I tend to allow myself to get captivated by the author’s skill in a well-constructed mystery: the plotting, setting, and people in A Murder in Time are so colorful that playing “Whodunit?” seems unnecessary to its enjoyment. As the novel progressed, I allowed my heart to intervene, and found myself hoping against hope that the villain was not one person in particular whom I (and Kendra) became rather attached to. Such is the power of good characterization, to develop those whom readers revile and whom they love, and, sometimes, whom readers revile at first and grow to love over the course of the novel.
A Murder in Time is available now at Greenville Public Library.