Top mysteries challenge review: Time and Again by Jack Finney

Year of publication: 1970
Genre: Speculative fiction, sci-fi, thriller
Type of investigator: Amateur, time traveller
Setting & time: New York, USA; 1882 and 1969

Illustrator Simon Morley is recruited to take part in a top-secret project to travel back in time. Once he is back in the 19th century, he is only supposed to observe and not meddle in anything, but when he discovers that a young woman he meets in the past and cares for has become entangled with a dangerous man, he knows he has to do something. That something leads them to become involved in a horrific event that puts them both in mortal danger.

I suppose that technically Time and Again is science fiction, although giving it that classification might give readers the idea that it’s full of science, aliens and strange technology. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is, for example, no time machine, the time travel being achieved by self-hypnosis, although only after extensive training that includes acquiring intimate knowledge of New York in the 1880’s and learning to evade questions that might reveal that he is not of the time he is visiting.

This is a very detailed, well told and lovingly written story about the possibility of time travel, and the effect it might have on both the past and the future, as well as on the time traveller. It is enriched by photographs and drawings from the era Morley travels back to, presented as if they were Morley’s work, and making the story more realistic. The characters are entirely believable, the detail stunning, the historical detail rich and Morley’s reactions to the past are entirely believable. The descriptions of New York, both in 1969 and in 1882, are beautifully written, so as to make the reader feel she is really there, and the description of the disaster that takes place in the last third of the story is terrifyingly realistic.

All of the detail might seem superfluous to the central story, but in reality it is not. It serves a very definite purpose, which is to make the story seem more real than if it had been written as a straight thriller with less detail, to make it sound like the account of real events (as indeed the disaster is), and transport the reader back to 1882 with the narrator. It does mean that readers looking to find a fast-moving narrative with chills and thrills will probably give up after a couple of chapters, disgusted with all the detail, but readers who enjoy slow reads and who love to read themselves into books will be amply rewarded for opening this one.

Having said all this, I must also add that the story is not without flaws. The romance is not very convincing, and for much of the story it seems as if Morley is not really in love but only trying to prevent the match between the girl and the villain because he dislikes the villain. He is also not a very likeable character himself, being arrogant, reckless and rather immoral. The story is also a bit too pat at times, with things falling too easily into place. I am therefore only giving it 3+ stars.

Books left in challenge: 80

Place on the list(s): MWA #99
Awards and nominations: None I know of

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