Ross Murdock is a small-time repeat felon who has run out of luck; his next sentence is going to be a long one. Until the judge offers him the opportunity to work on a secret project with the US government, an opportunity he quickly takes. And as is the case when one volunteers (especially in speculative fiction novels), he has no idea what he has set himself up for.
Andre Norton's Time Traders takes two of the most common speculative fiction situations and combines them into a Cold War novel that aspires to become more. On the one hand, America discovers that the Soviets have begun to employ time travel in their efforts to dominate the world, which would be bad enough. But as America attempts to duplicate their technology, it discovers that it is not native, that in fact, the Soviets have retrieved it from aliens. So the Americans establish a force to fight this combined temporal and alien threat. And it is this fight that Murdock has just enlisted for.
The first goal of the task force is to determine in what time period the Soviets have encountered the aliens and either try to disrupt the relationship or horn in on it themselves. America has set up several temporal way stations, and Murdock is trained to slip into the culture of Iron Age England as he investigates the Soviet presence there. His training is nearly ended prematurely when he uncovers a Soviet spy in the American forces, but he overcomes this obstacle with sheer cussedness and continues until he finds himself in the era for which he has trained and the target of religious fanatics scared into action by his Soviet foes.
The course of this short novel wanders from fantasy to science fiction as Murdock rapidly shifts modes; he must deal with the Iron Age natives and their fears, which in turn leads him into conflict with modern Soviets. And when he ultimately uncovers the source of the Soviet technology, he stands against an alien force far greater…and far angrier…than any agent might have expected.
With all this set-up, the novel is surprisingly light and fluffy. Much like the heroes of early scientific romances, Murdock truly has no idea of the big picture and stumbles from encounter to encounter, uncovering bits and pieces of the conspiracy and reporting them back to his superiors. As a result, the reader also doesn't have a clear idea of the big picture until one of those superiors deigns to tell Murdock. This is a weakness in the novel; we know why Murdock goes from event to event, but his movement is not remotely purposeful. What's more, at one point, Murdock takes a head injury and forgets his original time. He moves about in a sort of temporal amnesia in the Iron Age, convinced and convincing others that the back-story created for him is his real history. This episode proves more annoying than ambitious, as Norton's narrator constantly reminds us that Murdock is duping himself, and the attempts to remember seem to take place more in the narrator's head than in Murdock's.
Nonetheless, the novel is fun, in the way that 1950s speculative fiction often is; drop your mind off at the front door and just hang on for the ride. And it is quite a stormy ride, even if the main character is mostly flotsam in the storm's path.