Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: Sand City Murders by M.K. Alexander


I was intrigued by the idea of a time-traveling detective, something new for me, so was eager to read this book. I mostly read mysteries, but have read my share of science fiction and am a big fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, so I’m not new to time travel stories.

The book opens with rich descriptions of the characters and locations. This does, as one reviewer noted, make the opening slow, but the author does it so deftly, for the most part I didn’t find it a problem. The narrator is Patrick Jardel, senior reporter for the Chronicle, a local weekly newspaper, who is called to use his photographic skills to take pictures of a crime scene while the police photographer is on vacation. It is in this way that he gets involved with murders committed by what he initially calls the Barefoot Killer, since all the victims are without shoes. That is not the only thing they have in common; all the victims are young women, attractive, and, initially, unidentified.

Patrick’s unusual memory is what brings him into contact with Tractus Fynn. What makes it unusual is that he remembers when things were different from his current reality. Little things, things that you might attribute to a mistake in your recollection if they happened to you, but which Patrick knows are no mistake, but a change in the world. Fynn, the time-traveling detective, needs Patrick’s assistance because of his memory so he can know when time has changed in the one reality. It is Fynn who leads Patrick to discover that the murdered girls all disappeared in the mid-nineteen-seventies, only to mysteriously appear, dead, in the present.

At several points in the novel, Fynn attempts to explain to Patrick how time travel works. I found these difficult to follow. Fynn keeps repeating “It’s complicated” and, when Patrick tries to pin him down on some points, Fynn is evasive. That would be all right, if not for the fact that it happens too often and goes on for too long. I don’t think it’s totally necessary for the reader to understand all the details of how time travel works in order to enjoy the story.

***Spoiler Alert***
I usually don’t include spoilers in my reviews because I don’t like taking the chance that someone will read them and have the mystery spoiled for them. However, in this case I feel the need to divulge some things in order to explain why I gave this book three stars.

For a good part of the novel, Fynn and Patrick, along with Durban, a police officer, are trying to determine who the killer is. Then, unexpectedly, Fynn reveals that he knows the killer is one Mortimer, his arch-nemesis, who is another time traveler. It might be my aging memory, but I don’t remember any hints earlier in the book that this would be the case.

(As an aside, when Mortimer showed up, I immediately realized that the author had structured this story similar to Sherlock Holmes, with Mortimer being his Moriarity, and Patrick his Watson.)

Early on, in one of Fynn’s explanations of time travel, he describes what he calls “hard” and “soft” jumps. When you jump to the past, it’s a “soft” jump, because you’re reinhabiting a version of you that already exists. When you jump to the future, it’s a “hard” jump because you have to create a new instance of yourself since you don’t exist there yet. Then, when the identity of Mortimer is revealed, he explains that the way he’s been able to carry out these killings so successfully is that he can hard jump to the past, that there are multiple versions of himself throughout time.

[Rant] You can make up any set of rules you want for your world and I’ll most likely go along with them, but you may not change the rules in order to make your plot come out right. Story world must be consistent within the story. [End Rant]

There are ramifications to switching timelines, as Patrick refers to it. (Fynn insists there is only one timeline. It’s complicated.) Events change. People change. A person who was sullen in one timeline is cheerful in another. Minor characters change roles. Fynn undoes a murder. Mortimer redoes the murder. As the author himself states at the beginning of Chapter 33, “In Fynn’s world, any series of events was perfectly plausible.”

And that’s a big problem in a mystery. One of the pleasures of reading mysteries is trying to figure out whodunnit before the author reveals him or her. When people and events can change to this extent, that’s not playing fair with the reader. I gave up trying to figure it out about three-quarters of the way through the book.

Add to that the fact that Mortimer turns out to be a character we’ve never met in person in the rest of the book, and I couldn’t possibly give this book more than three stars.
***End Spoiler***

The book could have used one more pass through a copyeditor or proofreader. There weren’t horrendous errors and there weren’t a lot of them, but there were enough so that they were noticeable. These consisted of missing or extra words and misused words (clamor for clamber, gauss for gauze, ). And the ever-popular, but dead wrong use of “I” after “and” when it should be “me.”

The author is a competent writer. His descriptions of what happens at the newspaper are realistic, a reflection of his career as a reporter. One thing he nails is the distinctive dialogue for his characters, particularly Patrick and Fynn. You don’t need tags because the way they speak identifies them. Few authors do this so well. Both Patrick and Fynn are well-developed characters and I very much liked the town of Sand City. I would consider returning to it to see what happens in the next of this series.

Note: I received this book through the Goodreads Making Connections group in exchange for an unbiased review.
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