At Midnight by Maura McKenzie
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-6907-3
***
I have come to look forward to reading time travel romances because the concept itself practically forces originality and either humor or suspense into the narrative. The time travel element in Maura McKenzie’s At Midnight does indeed get the story off to a good start. As time travel took a back seat to the novel’s mystery, however, my interest faded. The puzzle elements of the mystery - which should have kicked in as the novelty of time travel waned - didn’t work for me, putting too much of the story’s burden on the pleasant romance at its heart.

Trish “Mac” McAllister is a 21st century reporter, six years out of college and hot on a story of a serial killer. The Piano Man Killer, so called because he garrotes pretty, young women with piano wire, has just struck for the fourth time, near Staunton, Virginia. His first and third killings took place in June, his second a few days before Christmas. Christmas this year is a few days away, and Mac has guessed correctly that the killer would strike again. As she covers the crime scene, Mac notices a movement in the near-by brush. She chases after the man, but when she catches up to him and recklessly accuses him of being the killer, he seems to vanish into thin air.

By this time the snow is coming down heavily, so Mac takes shelter in the ruins of The Chesterfield, an abandoned resort. There she finds an old trunk and when she investigates its contents…presto, change-o…she is transported to 1892.

Jared Yates is a Pinkerton, on his way to Hope Springs, Virginia, where The Chesterfield is located. In 1892 The Chesterfield is a prosperous resort, with a flourishing Christmas trade. Jared’s fiancée was strangled at The Chesterfield, at Christmas time, two years ago. A second woman died the following Christmas, and Jared has the feeling that a third woman is in danger. He has decided to spend the holiday at the resort, hoping to catch the killer.

As the train approaches Hope Springs, Jared is drawn into a disturbance. The conductor has discovered a stowaway whom he threatens to turn over to the police when they reach Hope Springs. The young woman protests that she is not a stowaway, that she has no idea how she came to be on the train. Jared intervenes and buys Mac her train ticket.

The dialogue that ensues is amusing. Mac unwittingly shocks Jared with her scandalous clothing and frank speech. In turn, she thinks that Jared is part of an unusually authentic reenactment while also noticing that Jared is better looking than Mel Gibbs.

Mac’s adjustment to 1892 is eased when the train arrives in Hope Springs a few minutes later. She and Jared are met at the train station by the head housekeeper at The Chesterfield. Esme Sparrow is quite familiar with time travelers, and she is able to convince Mac that the impossible has happened. She lets Mac sleep in her rooms, outfits her in period clothing, and gives her a job working as a maid at The Chesterfield. Mac’s experiences there will make you happy that career opportunities for women have enlarged considerably in the last 100 years!

Although Miss Sparrow’s intervention takes much of the suspense and uncertainty out of Mac’s abrupt arrival in the 19th century, the differences between Mac’s ideas about sex and relationships and Jared’s are entertaining and amusing. I did think that Jared succumbed to Mac’s sexual aggressiveness with fewer mental and moral reservations than I expected from a staunch Victorian male. Aside from that caveat, I found them both to be convincing and attractive characters whose romance I wanted to succeed.

That fairly straightforward romance just wasn’t enough to carry the story, however, and there wasn’t enough mystery to the mystery. We know from the first chapter that the Piano Man Killer is a time traveler, Mac is never in serious danger from the killer, and we are told enough about Jared Yates that we never really suspect that he is the killer. (Nor does Mac, for that matter.) No other characters are shown in a sinister light; Ms. McKenzie never tries very hard to set up red herrings. So, while I greatly enjoyed the first half of the book, I can’t in good conscience rate it higher than three hearts, knowing that it only held my interest about half way through. A shorter At Midnight would have been a better At Midnight.

--Nancy J. Silberstein


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