A Question of Time (1971) by Helen McCloy

This tale of suspense is split into two parts. The first takes place on 1960-61, beginning with Sophronia Holland’s New Year’s Eve party. She is awaiting the arrival of her long lost granddaughter Elizabetta, from Italy, who is supposedly the daughter of her dead son Rupert. She puts a brave face on, despite having concerns over whether this 13 year old is who she is said to be, as there is a lot of money at stake, not only from her father, but also from Holland’s dead husband, who has left his wealth to be divided between his grandchildren once they reach the age of 23. Despite all of this things seem to go well with Elisabetta’s arrival, with her making friends with her young cousins Susan and Roland. The only main fly in the ointment is her excessive and inexplicable fear of Holland’s ballroom, which seems to give her a terrifying sense of déjà vu and a strong sense that she will die in that room one day. This first section ends with her being taken back to Italy, as her Italian grandparents surface, demanding her return. The narrative then jumps ahead to 1970-71, to another New Year’s Eve and now 23 Elisabetta is returning to America, her terror of the ballroom supposedly forgotten. Tension and jealousies mount, leaving the reader wondering what it will all lead to…

Overall Thoughts

Despite this book having a simple plot, McCloy still manages to weave an engaging tale, with more than one surprise. Normally in such mysteries we ought to be suspicious of long lost relatives, who are usually up to no good, but this time round such a figure becomes the victim. The atmosphere is well done as usual, with the eeriness rising and then ebbing, then rising again, a rhythm that works well with the plot and the publication date, ensuring that the suspense is not overdone or unsustainable. Although not an out and out clue based mystery, McCloy does actually clue the final solution in an interesting way, especially with her use of an old film reel. I enjoyed seeing how the characters had changed in the 10 year interim, in particular the characters who were children or teenagers in the first section. A great deal of gentle comedy is developed through such characters, especially the precocious next door neighbour twins, Pelleas and Melisande. Early on in the story we have a feeling how these two will turn out given this line their mother says on her approach to parenting:

‘My husband and I feel strongly that children should range free if they’re to have any chance of becoming independent […] I never know where Pelleas is or what he’s doing half the time, and I make a point of being unkind to him once every day so he won’t become too attached to me.’

Furthermore she is always keen to boast to Holland about how intelligent her children are, to which Holland is merely polite. After all ‘other people’s children, like other people’s love affairs, were so much less interesting than one’s own.’

The murder in this book is quite an unusual one in many respects, though I will leave you to find out the details for yourself, but it is one which is psychologically speaking very difficult to pull off. Although there are police figures in the background it is the family members who come to the uncomfortable truth at the end, as to who did the deed. This felt quite natural, given how much time we have already spent with them. My only issue with this finale was that it lacked drama, the killer in fact never saying a word and as a consequence I found the story limped to conclusion. McCloy also seems frightfully keen on having her characters discuss medical theories on Elisabetta’s state of mind, i.e. her dread of the ballroom, and other such matters. In small doses this is dull but manageable, but I do think this focus dampens the ending somewhat.

Despite this book’s faults, it is still quite a fun and delightful tale. It might not be one to rush out and buy full price this very second, but I’d definitely recommend giving it a go if you find a cheap copy in your book browsing, as the characters and atmosphere are wonderfully done and the central murder is quite novel in my opinion.

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Death by Blunt Instrument


  1. I’ve been keeping my eye out for Helen McCloy novels but somehow I haven’t noticed this one before. I love the cover art on the edition you used and I may have to seek it out just for that.

    I suspect that I’ll end up reading quite a few McCloy’s, but like you mention, she seems to have that annoying habit of injecting psychological elements that feel a bit dated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Which ones have you read so far? Managed to get quite a few titles for my coffee and crime venture, though this particular book came from Bev Hankins. I think some of her books have less issues with psychology chat, especially her earlier ones I think. Still a pretty good suspense writer.


      • I’ve only read Through a Glass, Darkly so far, but I’ve noticed that other reviews mention psychology (probably because of Basil Willing’s occupation). I own Two Thirds of a Ghost and Alias Basil Willing, but I’m not sure when I’ll get to them. I’m definitely going to be hunting down A Cue for Murder and Mr Splitfoot, as they seem to be the most highly rated. I’m also tempted to pick up some of the Dell map backs if I can find them for a reasonable price.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I’ve only read a few Helen McCloy novels, but I definitely enjoyed ‘Deadly Truth’. This one sounds like a thriller rather than a mystery?

    Liked by 1 person

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