Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sand City Murders by MK Alexander - a Review

Sand City Murders is a mystery/crime novel, with a time travel twist. It is narrated in the first person by Patrick Jardel, a reporter with a small town newspaper, the Sand City Chronicle. He becomes involved in the investigation of a series of strange murders in the town. The investigation becomes international when the Dutch detective, Tractus Fynn, is brought into the investigation because of a connection with similar crimes overseas. It soon becomes apparent to Patrick that all—and particularly Fynn—is not what it seems. Fynn slowly reveals himself to have the ability to travel through time and alter past events, and Patrick himself discovers that he is unique (apparently) in being able to recall the previous timelines, although the present is now altered. Along the way it becomes clear that a shadowy figure, whom Fynn calls ‘Mortimer’, may be behind these murders, and that this Mortimer is also a time traveler, and Fynn’s arch-enemy or nemesis.

There is a certain corniness to this plot, which may be intentional, paying homage to detective fiction of the past, but also, perhaps, to more recent television interpretations of these. The figure of Fynn reminded me of the recent interpretation of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, in the current ITV production, Poirot, as portrayed by David Suchet. Fynn is slightly (and somewhat indeterminately) foreign, somewhat pompous and markedly old-fashioned. He is meant to be Dutch apparently, yet, for some reason, refers to young women as ‘Mademoiselle’, blurring his nationality to some extent.

The plot itself is necessarily complicated and, I might say, almost indeterminate. This is because the present—due to Fynn’s and Mortimer’s messing with the past—is in constant flux. Who has been murdered, who works where and does what—these things can change within a few pages. This means that minor characters in the story are difficult to pin down: today, they are not who they were yesterday. The major characters, though, are reasonably firm, Patrick, Fynn and the main local detective on the scene, Durbin. Patrick’s growing confusion and the gradual disintegration of his concept of reality and his trust in the world around him are well portrayed. This also provides for some nice moments of humour. I was a little less sure about Fynn. In particular, his foreignness seems to come and go somewhat. Mortimer (when his identity is finally revealed) turns out to be something of a comic book character: rather stereotypically evil. The motivation for his personal vendetta against Fynn remains unclear to me.

In any story involving time travel, there are always going to be problems with the plot. Explaining the ‘rules’—why this happens, why this doesn’t, how this or that is accomplished—will always leave plenty of scope for criticism. For the purpose of such a story I am generally happy to ‘suspend my disbelief’ in these cases. The author here makes a valiant effort at making it all plausible—and, of course, fails miserably in the attempt. That’s okay. What bothered me slightly more was that he spent too much time trying to explain the rules to the reader, via conversations between Patrick and Fynn. There were too many such conversations, none of which really served to clarify the matter or further the plot. I was also puzzled by the introduction of another element into Patrick’s character, namely, his apparent total ignorance regarding modern icons such as Superman, Popeye and the Flintstones. We are informed that Patrick possesses no television, but this is not enough to account for such ignorance. These little hints were intriguing and amusing, and I eagerly awaited the explanation for this, or the revelation of their significance for the plot. Neither eventuated. Or perhaps I missed something here.

It is clear that the author intends this to be the first in a series of novels, with Tractus Fynn as the main protagonist, and Patrick as his narrator/sidekick (à la ‘Watson’). I would be a little concerned that the motif—crime occurring; Fynn flashing back to past to undo crime (thus changing the present); Mortimer flashing back to do it all again—could become tedious very quickly. Subsequent volumes could end up being nothing more than minor variations on the theme. I await the sequels with interest.

I might just mention that there were a number of technical issues with the book. Particularly early on, the author seemed to have lost control of the tense in which he was writing. Happily, this settled down after a while. There were also a large number of typographical and grammatical errors, which I stopped counting after a while. Some of these errors really jarred: ‘once and a while’ instead of ‘once in a while’; ‘gossip-and-chief’ rather than ‘gossip-in-chief’; similarly ‘editor-and-chief’ rather than ‘editor-in-chief’. The author repeatedly wrote ‘in the knick of time’ rather than ‘in the nick of time’. This was unintentionally amusing. The author also frequently wrote ‘maybe’ instead of ‘may be’. I would encourage the author to work hard to avoid so many issues in subsequent volumes.

All in all, this in an enjoyable and entertaining book. The overriding concept is interesting and provides scope for some interesting stories. There is also the possibility that this will quickly lose its novelty value. To this volume I give four stars.

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