Glen Cook, A Matter of Time

A Matter of Time is another of Glen Cook’s early novels newly reissued. For those most familiar with Cook’s best known works — the Chronicles of the Black Company or Garrett, P.I., or even the Starfishers Trilogy, it’s quite a departure — in a way.

Cook has set up a story with three separate narratives that aren’t really all that separate — in fact, one of them is an episode more than a narrative, although it sets up the main story line — but it doesn’t happen until after the main story has begun. (Well, we are talking about tricks with time, here, right?)

The major narrative involves police detective Norman Cash, who, with his partner John Harald, manages to land one of those cases: a dead man found in the snow in an alley, still warm, physically nondescript, wearing only a pair of baggy tweed pants with $1.37 in old coins in his pocket — some in mint condition. The body is finally identified as belonging to a man who disappeared over fifty years before.

The “episode” involves the destruction of a — well, not exactly a time machine, more of a time-messaging system, the TDDT System, upon which the existence of the State depends. That destruction also throws the inventors/operators of the system, the Zumstegs, father, son and daughter, back into the late nineteenth century —or at least, their psyches make the trip — where they take over the bodies of Fian, Fial, and Fiala Groloch and eventually make their way to America. The dead man is found behind Fiala’s house.

The third narrative involves Michael Cash, Norman’s son, MIA in Vietnam, who is being “reeducated.” If things go as they have gone in the timeline the Grolochs inhabited, Michael is a very important person indeed.

I’m going to call this one a police procedural with temporal anomalies, but those anomalies aren’t really as critical to the action as they might be in other hands: yes, they set up the situation, and they provide the resolution, but the story could exist in essentially the same form without them. And I’m taking liberties calling it a “police procedural” — it’s much more about the police than the procedure. You could also call it a science-fiction puzzle story and be just as accurate. Cook has used as the central metaphor a Klein bottle, the three-dimensional equivalent of a Moebius strip — you can circumnavigate the bottle, inside and outside, and wind up at the place where you started. I’m not sure, however, that the metaphor is really that much on point, since the story, in spite of the framing, doesn’t really wind up in the same place.

OK: it’s one of Cook’s earlier efforts, and not as pointed as his more accomplished work — there are places where it lags — but it does generate a nice degree of tension, and Cook even at that stage of his career was an mesmerizing writer — it’s hard to put down. So, even though I can’t honestly bestow a garland of superlatives on this one, it’s a solid book, and it’s nice to have it available again.

(Night Shade Books), 2011 [orig. 1985])

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