Echo by Jack McDevitt
Echo by Jack McDevitt sees us back with the fifth outing in the universe of Chase Kolpath and Alex Benedict, and prompts me to a brief consideration of what makes a good detective/mystery story. I suppose, at its heart, the narrative must be a good puzzle with the author playing fair by allowing us to look over the detective’s shoulder and enjoy the mechanics of working out whodunit. With the benefit of perfect hindsight, we should see all the clues lying in plain sight and understand how the detective made the connections between them that led to the solution. It’s all about salience, i.e. being about to see some facts as more significant than others. In this, the readers should have no special help. This is not a time for an omniscient author to drop hints and vouchsafe important facts withheld from the detective. We should have the same chance as the detective to observe and notice. In this, Jack McDevitt plays the classic card of having the “detective” observed by the loyal sidekick. Except that Chase Kolpath is rather more active than many of the traditional foils whose only function is to make awed noises whenever the great detective offers an insight. As in earlier novels, Chase literally saves Alex from “certain” death.
Then we get into matters of style. Some writers go for melodrama with car chases and bullets flying. Others are more calm, seeing real drama in small English villages or other isolated communities. Authors like Adam-Troy Castro, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Jack McDevitt have been transplanting detectives into outer space and transforming the puzzles by having the key facts depend on science or the observed behaviour of aliens. This is a balance between the characterisation, the atmosphere created by the context of the crime and the nature of the problem to be solved. For these purposes, we are not directly interested in judging the criminal. Although it’s always interesting to know what happens after their wrongdoing is exposed, it’s relatively unusual to get into the detail of the trial. We more usually ignore explicit moralising and apply the old Hollywood rule of seeing why crime does not pay.
Echo is a particularly pleasing example of the genre. Set off on the hunt by the curious incident of the “tombstone” that does not fall into the river, we have the obsessive Alex Benedict grow interested in the activities of the equally obsessed “Sunset” Tuttle, a man who spent his life in pursuit of evidence that aliens exist. This makes the novel a full scale version of the anthology Is Anybody Out There. As you will suspect, the “tombstone” may be evidence that we are not alone. However, the more interesting plot hook is why Rachel Bannister, Tuttle’s lover, should be so determined to prevent Alex from investigating. Indeed, what motivates her to commit suicide when Alex persists? The answer is elegant and convincing.
As with The Devil’s Eye, the structure of the book has the first two-thirds lead up to the key discovery. Thereafter we are into a more conventional SF adventure in which we slowly gain information for the big reveal of why Rachel Bannister should have felt so guilty and who has been trying to kill our heroes. Except, this final third is too long and, to be honest, has hackneyed padding elements. Although we do need to continue playing the detective game for a while longer, the book would have benefitted from some serious editorial control, reducing the length to more bare essentials.
Even so, this is a highly enjoyable page-turner and it’s not surprising to see it as one of the 2010 Nebula Awards Nominations. Definitely recommended to those who like a mixture of SF and the classic detective genres.
Jack art by John Harris.