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I don’t remember what made me buy Dave Sinclair’s time travel/spy book Out Of Time: An Atticus Wolfe Novel. It’s the first of the three-part series (somehow, I think readers expect series these days rather than standalone books). I suppose it was the theme. An MI6 agent in 2024 is suddenly thrust backwards in time to London, November 1963 and joins the same agency, encountering all manner of anachronisms from sixty years in the past.
Atticus Wolfe is an accomplished MI6 agent currently in London. He’s been stalking an international terrorist named Omar Ganim who has been raiding various scientific organizations and is believed to be building a devastating weapon. Wolfe has been unsuccessful in finding Ganim, that is until a twist of fate puts him behind his quarry on a street. With no time to call for help, Wolfe pursues and corners Ganim. He finds Ganim apparently ready to activate a bomb.
Wolfe plays for time, trying to talk Ganim down. Ganim insists he’s not a terrorist or murderer. He appeals to Atticus as a man of color, who, like him, has never experienced justice from the white system. He says he’s going back to fix the mess that the French and English made of the Middle East. There seems to be an explosion.
Atticus wakes up on a hospital bed, but everything seems wrong, especially when the doctor comes walking into the room smoking a cigarette. No one can make heads or tails of the items found on his person and even Atticus finds an extra item he hadn’t been carrying before. He asks if anyone has called his superiors at MI6 but no one knows what he’s talking about…except one man who sees him alone.
Oliver Preston works for the relatively new agency MI6 which is not publicly known. The horror of Wolfe’s situation dawns on him that he is still in London, but displaced to November 1963, just after the American President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
As I said, it’s an interesting concept but the execution could have used more work. Or maybe it’s exactly what the author intended.
As an African-British man with firm 21st century sensibilities, he finds 1963 to be not only archaic, but hopelessly racist, sexist, misogynistic, and patriarchal, and that’s just for starters. The first quarter of the book could be distilled down to Wolfe’s bemoaning his fate being stuck in such a time with no ally and no way home.
Oddly enough, Oliver becomes his ally and fast friend. Seeing Wolfe’s smartphone, smartwatch, and other strange (common for us) devices, he readily accepts that Atticus is a spy from the 21st century and agrees to help him. He rents him an apartment and forges papers so that Atticus can seem like a transfer to MI6 from British Naval Intelligence. All that was pretty odd. Even if I had encountered a person with inexplicable technology, time travel wouldn’t be my first thought in real life. Yet Oliver accepts Atticus is unreasonable ease. He also fails to ask how and why he came back in time and if it was part of a mission.
While Wolfe’s original plan was to use the old-fashioned resources of the newly minted MI6 to find Omar and discover a way back to his own time, he gets sidetracked by a mystery where he is. An undercover agent who had just arrived in Berlin is immediately kidnapped and all indications lead to a mole in their agency. Atticus recalls his history of MI6 and no such event ever took place. As things mount up, he has to conclude that his own arrival in 1963 has changed history, and not for the better.
He encounters racism along the way which is totally expected. What was really distracting and even annoying is how the character would launch either into internal tirades or pepper Oliver (and eventually Maggie from “Signals” when she finds out) about how terrible his lot is and how much better the 21st century is.
I made a lot of notes and there were numerous “oh, brother” and “eyeroll” moments in the book. Wolfe even went so far as to castigate the 1962 cartoon The Jetsons for being misogynist. Sinclair introduced a bit of inadvertent humor when he had Atticus “mansplain” to Maggie what “mansplaining” was.
Really, it was as if Atticus was the 21st century social activist who would be a spy. Oliver was a closeted gay (since there were laws against gay sexual contact in those days) allowing Wolfe to comment at length about homophobia and various gay slurs. I got the feeling that the true purpose of this book was to make extensive and droning social commentary rather than a time travel action adventure novel.
Except for a few seemingly “hallucinatory” incidents of Wolfe’s for the most part, he had abandoned his quest for Omar as he and his companions, all MI6 outcasts, were drawn further into the web of conspiracy and murder.
For instance, since Wolfe was black, his immediate supervisor in an apparent fit of racism, wanted to assign him to the African bureau, but Atticus insisted on Eastern Europe. If he really wanted to find out Omar’s scheme, assuming he was located in the same time period, he’d have asked for the Middle East. That was never revisited.
Atticus seemed automatically smarter than anyone around him, including Oliver who was highly resourceful through overlooked at the agency. Not only that, but physically, he seemed superhuman. At one point in Germany at a safehouse in the country, a sniper kills the local bureau chief. Atticus lifts the man holding him in front a shield while running and shooting at the sniper. That would be difficult to impossible, especially running over several hundred meters.
Wolfe as the man out of time and the protagonist is supposed to be likeable and sympathetic, but much of the time he was either moody or arrogant.
There were a number of other plot holes and I won’t go into all of them.
Spoiler Alert: Oliver turns out to be the mole. I guessed it only because he was the least likely suspect. I wasn’t sure Sinclair would allow him to be the villain given his particular viewpoints. Oliver was supposed to be sympathetic while still being a raving, egotistical maniac. Given that being “outed” as gay would have ended his career and might have had him sent to jail, if the Soviets had discovered this, they could have blackmailed him into spying for Mother Russia. That would have left him a sympathetic character and he could have even murdered when in a panic. Sinclair didn’t choose that option.
Instead, he had Oliver believe that the USSR’s version of Communism was more accepting of his being gay, and he even asks Maggie to join him saying that her opportunities would be vastly improved with the Russians as opposed to the sexist British. I found that last part hard to swallow. You’d think Oliver’s information sources would have told him what life under the Soviets would be like for a gay man, but we’re expected to believe his ideology overwhelmed him. Oddly enough, the ideal world Oliver described should have been the one Atticus would be attracted to, an inclusive socialist paradise.
Only Oliver and Maggie (I haven’t written much about her, but she’s a strong, intelligent woman who is underrated and prone to being eccentric) know Wolfe’s origins. Oliver has laid hands on Wolfe’s smartphone which Wolfe stupidly told him has e-books on it describing the next 60 years of history. Oliver intends to give the information to the Soviets so they will win the Cold War.
Good luck getting past the passcode and then figuring out a way to charge the thing (although Wolfe made plenty of use of his smartwatch without changing it). Still, you never know.
Oliver makes good his escape after wounding Wolfe, and, having exposed the mole, suddenly, all of Wolfe’s white opponents at MI6 think he’s the best thing that ever dropped in on them.
While Oliver had originally generated his cover story, now there’s no reason for anyone to believe a word Wolfe said. He has no valid ID, no history at all, no identity in 1963. He could be the perfect Soviet spy in that sense. Instead, nothing more is said of it and all is good. He even gets Maggie in the end.
Oh, about Omar. Wolfe, still nursing a leg wound, makes his way up to his second-floor flat to find a stranger, an old man making a cuppa. Turns out it’s Omar who had gone back further in time to the 1920s. He found the device Atticus had hidden, the strange technology Wolfe didn’t know what to do with. Turns out its his key home.
The book ends there, somewhat on a cliffhanger and it’s implied that the next book requires Wolfe to attempt to retrieve his smartphone, which by now, is probably in a bunch of pieces in some secret Soviet lab.
I’m half-tempted to buy the second book just to see what happens next, but while this book was readable and had enough action, when I wasn’t being pulled out of the narrative by Sinclair’s social and identity lectures, I don’t think it’s worth the effort.
I actually feel bad panning the book since during its writing, Sinclair and his family were going through a pretty tough time. He seems like a nice enough guy and I hope things are better for him know. Also, as an indie writer, I know how at least some other people criticize my own writing, so it’s hard for me to do the same to others.
Yes, again, I understand a black man from the 21st century would encounter a great deal of racism in 1963 compared to the present, but Atticus (actually Sinclair) went so far out of his way to point out every little thing and then expound on feelings on events that hadn’t actually occurred, that it at least shook up if not completely derailed the old school spy action this book had promised.
A generous four-stars on Amazon: Interesting but flawed.