The Perfect Sickbed Read – A Review of A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain

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Minor spoiler warning for a brief discussion of the main character’s personal history. Knowing this information before reading the book has no bearing whatsoever on the plot, but some readers might want to know that the information is indeed presented and discussed, and so may appreciate this warning.

It’s easy to think that being sick enough to warrant skipping work and staying in bed means that one can catch up with one’s reading. In truth, however, this is a lot harder than it appears; it is difficult to focus on what one is reading when one is constantly distracted by the minor irritations that come with being ill. This does not mean that it is impossible to read while ill, but it does mean that certain books are precluded from the sickbed reading list because they require more focus than a reader might be willing to give when in less-than-peak condition.

I was presented with the above conundrum when I found myself in bed and ill with the flu a few days ago. I would start one book, and then abandon it after two or three pages for no other reason than that I could not give it the kind of focus it deserved. Nothing seemed to stick – and these were books I thought would stick, since they were largely in the genres I preferred, by authors I trusted. In the end, what stuck was a book I had acquired out of curiosity, with no guarantee of its quality beyond some relatively positive buzz for being a Big Library Read pick. It is also a book I probably would not have read to the very end, nor enjoyed, had I not been ill. That book is A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain, the first book 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: bring down an infamous Russian terrorist. But when the operation goes horrifically wrong, Kendra is left to pick up the pieces – and swears vengeance. 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.

Skimming through this book now, it is a wonder I managed to finish it, or even enjoy it, because I think I would have given up on it had I read it in a more stable physical condition. Based on the blurb, I was expecting to sympathise, even like Kendra’s colleagues. After all, Kendra liked them enough to swear vengeance for their sake. Surely they are an endearing group of people – perhaps not perfect, but at least endearing.

Unfortunately, the impression they leave is far from sympathetic, and certainly far from endearing. Take this excerpt for example, which comes from Kendra’s superior officer:

Feminists could kiss his ass, but Carson was old enough and, yes, old-fashioned enough to still believe that to bring a woman—especially a woman who looked like Kendra—into an all-male environment was to invite disaster.

This is followed up by other, similar statements, all made by Kendra’s colleagues, such as 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?”

And this:

“No more fucking takeout on Saturday night,” O’Brien said. “No offence—but the only mug I’m gonna miss seeing is Kendra’s.”

“Bet your wife will be glad when this is over then,” said Noone.

Landon stretched and grinned. “After this is over, I’m gonna celebrate on a beach somewhere in the Caribbean. Flirting with hot island babes and drinking rum out of a fucking coconut.”

“Yeah, what about your wife, Terry?” O’Brien laughed.

“She can stay home.”

And – most irritatingly – this:

“Shit. My one chance at seeing you naked, Kendra, and I’m not even looking forward to it.” Landon shot her a wicked grin.

None of the above makes me feel the least bit sorry for Kendra’s colleagues, and quite honestly I am glad most of them died. While I understand that such attitudes are prevalent in male-dominated workspaces such as the FBI, I do not understand what the author sought to accomplish by portraying these men the way they are portrayed, and then have Kendra desire to avenge them, especially since it is implied that this is not the first time they have treated her with less-than-sufficient respect. If the desired effect in the first few chapters is to get the reader to sympathise with Kendra’s desire for revenge, then the characters being avenged should at least show qualities that make them worth avenging. I, however, do not see how machismo and misogyny are qualities worth avenging, much less destroy a promising career for.

Another problem I have with this novel is the way the romantic subplot is incorporated into the rest of the story. While I will never turn down a romance in any novel I read, regardless of genre, I do tend to be rather picky about how it is woven into the story, and how it plays out. I do not necessarily have a specific set of criteria for how a “good” romance works out in anything I read, except to say that it must feel natural, not forced.

Sadly, “natural” is not how I would describe the romance in this novel. The romantic attraction between the two characters in question feels jerky and out-of-place, especially since they spend a fairly large chunk of the novel actively disliking each other. This makes their romantic interest in each other, when it is finally made clear, feel artificial and forced. Indeed, I did not really notice that there was to be a romantic subplot at all until I came across the following sentence:

He looked more handsome than the last time she’d seen him, probably because he wasn’t scowling.

That statement came almost from out of nowhere, since there was absolutely nothing preceding it to foreshadow the statement. When I first read it I decided to simply take it as an observation – after all, it is possible to call a man “handsome” and feel no attraction to him. But as the subplot continued its jerky, uneven progress, I was forced to accept that yes, this was supposed to be a “romantic” plot line, however poorly it fit into the narrative. If the progress had been slower, or if the major movements (if such poorly-constructed events could even be dignified with that term) had occurred in the second book of this series, then I might have forgiven the inclusion of a romantic subplot. As things stand, though, I would have much preferred that there be no romance at all, instead of have to deal with this clumsily-plotted narrative.

But I suppose none of the problems I have just mentioned would really stand out as much as they do if the characters had been better written. Kendra is mostly tolerable, though I do wonder why her being the daughter of two eugenicists is given such importance in the first third of the novel. The knowledge serves no purpose except perhaps to explain her unusually high intelligence, but that information has almost no impact whatsoever on the rest of the book – indeed, its only purpose is to explain why Kendra was able to qualify as an FBI agent at such a young age. I therefore wonder why the author thought this information sufficiently important to spend so much time on it; and why eugenics even had to play a role in any of it anyway. I understand that the concept of eugenics is fascinating, and its history is an interesting one to explore and incorporate in fiction, but in this case, it is entirely superfluous. Kendra could easily have been a child genius with a desire to escape her family without the eugenics angle, and nothing at all would have changed about her character.

The rest of it is pretty much par-for-the-course: the male characters are all serviceable, with nothing to really make any of them stand out – this includes the love interest, who is only slightly more interesting than the others by virtue of his near-ubiquitous presence after he is introduced. The only other female character of note could have had the potential for amazing character development, especially since she was clearly being positioned as a period-appropriate counterpoint to Kendra, but she is never given an opportunity to truly grow. She is instead used as a platform to talk about the position of women in 19th century high society: an excellent source for quotations, but not much else.

Given all these issues, what, then, might be considered this book’s redeeming factor? After all, if I claim to have finished it, and indeed, enjoyed it, why have I mentioned nothing but negatives? The reason is that I am writing this review with a much clearer head than when I read it. I write this fully recovered from my illness, and therefore better able to see all the problems I missed while I was ill. But then, it does say something about the book, that I was able to tolerate it while I was sick. It is sufficiently entertaining, at least: the main plot is a tidy, if somewhat unoriginal, murder mystery, and there is some fun to be had in that. As long as the reader does not think too hard about the finer details – which is what tends to happen during illness – then he or she should find be able to derive some enjoyment from this book.

Overall, A Murder in Time is a rather enjoyable romp – as long as the reader does not try to think too hard about what he or she is reading, because closer scrutiny will make it fall apart at the seams. This makes it an ideal sickbed read: entertaining enough to hold the reader’s attention, but not too complicated to require his or her focus. It is far, far from ideal, but then again, if one is reading it while ill, it does not need to be.

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2 thoughts on “The Perfect Sickbed Read – A Review of A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain

    1. It’s definitely a frame-of-mind thing, when it comes to this book, and my experience with it clearly presents that, I think. If you come to this book expecting nothing more than to be entertained, then it definitely does what it’s supposed to do; however, if you approach it with other expectations, then it can fall short. It just so happened I was in the unique (but not unenviable – I wouldn’t wish the flu I had on anyone I liked, or even vaguely knew) position to be able to approach it from both angles, hence my review.

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