by Jack McDevitt



370pp/$24.95/November 2004 


Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Jack McDevitt’s latest novel, Polaris, is the story of a futuristic Flying Dutchman.  The basic premise is set up in a prologue which describes the final known moments of the starship Polaris.  The majority of the novel deals with the antiques dealer Alex Benedict and his assistant Chase Kolpath and the investigation into the disappearance of the passengers from the Polaris.

Six decades after the crew disappeared, an exhibit of recovered artifacts is held.  Because of various assistance Benedict has given to the Survey, he has been allowed to select certain pieces for his own purchase before the exhibit and subsequent auction.  When an assassination attempt destroys the rest of the exhibit, Benedict's artifacts skyrocket in value.  However, the assassination attempt isn't all it appears to be and it causes Benedict and Kolpath to delve more deeply into the mystery of the Polaris.

Although a sequel to McDevitt's second novel, A Talent for War, which has recently been reprinted, there is no need for the reader to have familiarity with that book to fully enjoy Polaris.  Although the characters and setting carry over, the situations in Polaris are new to the book.  In fact, while A Talent for War was told by Benedict, Kolpath is the narrator of Polaris, providing it with a similar narrative feel as the earlier novel, but one which allows McDevitt to take a completely different viewpoint.

McDevitt's novels always have a grand scale to them, even when dealing with individuals on a strictly personal level.  In the case of Polaris, the focus of the book is constantly on Kolpath and Benedict, yet the galactic-wide community is never far from the surface.  Stellar destruction opens the novel, and the knowledge that the universe is an inhospitable place is a constant undercurrent, heightening the man-made tension of the book.

The majority of the novel is told as an hard boiled detective novel, with the two main characters tracking down clues, working with the police (and not telling them everything), evading traps, and poking around a variety of strange and exotic places.  In many ways, Polaris is an excellent melding of the gumshoe novel and the space opera.  Many of the situations Kolpath and Benedict find themselves in would not have been out of place in the works of "Doc" Smith or Edmond Hamilton, although McDevitt thankfully avoids resorting to purple prose.

Unlike many mystery authors, McDevitt plays fair.  Filling the book with clues both real and red herrings, the reader can solve the mystery ahead of Kolpath and Benedict, however, McDevitt doesn't make the solution too obvious.  There is no feeling that the characters are blind to the reality around them, nor do they appear to possess a preternatural ability to discover that which should be hidden.

Polaris works on several layers, accommodating the reader's sense of wonder, as well as the desire for a good mystery.  If the character relationships aren't always as strong as they could be, it is made up for by their sense of self and the travelogue to exotic places which sets the stage for so much of the novel.  From the depiction of the final moments of the Polaris to the denouement, McDevitt has written a gripping novel that proves that the merger of science fiction and mystery is not only achievable, but can be done well.

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