Russell Letson reviews Jack McDevitt

Echo is Jack McDevitt’s fifth novel featuring antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his starship-pilot/assistant/narrator Chase Kolpath. McDevitt often uses the detective story as the armature for his novels (‘‘I’ve always loved a good mystery,’’ he has written), and Alex Benedict’s profession can be depended on to provide a plot-starting and -propelling McGuffin, usually in the form of an artifact with an obscure or puzzling provenance that eventually leads, after a dangerous hunt, to revelations about the deep or recent past.

This time the mystery-generator is a gravestone-size slab of rock incised with unidentifiable characters. The object, found via a kind of Craigslist ad, is of interest not only for its inscription but because it was found at a house once owned by an explorer who had, a generation earlier, devoted his life to the search for intelligent aliens. The late Somerset Tuttle had a reputation as an eccentric and a failure, since few people believe that the galaxy harbors any intelligences other than humans and the Mutes (concerning whom see The Devil’s Eye), and his quest had even led to the coining of the term ‘‘to tuttle,’’ meaning ‘‘to persist in an endeavor with no hope of success.’’ Nevertheless, Alex wonders whether the inscription might be evidence that Tuttle had actually found not of just another lost human colony (the galactic woods are full of them) but an alien civilization. On the other hand, why would he have kept such a discovery to himself and stowed the evidence in his house?

Actually, Alex doesn’t get to see the tablet itself, but only a picture. Before he can examine the object in person, an old lover of Tuttle’s gets to it and claims that she had it dumped in the river. The woman, Rachel Bannister, is evasive and unhelpful, and her unconvincing responses sharpen Alex’s curiosity, so he and Chase start digging through archives, pursuing leads, and conducting interviews to reconstruct Tuttle’s career, with special focus on the period just before his premature retirement 28 years earlier and on his relationship with Rachel Bannister.

A secondary puzzle develops, a pattern of unhappiness and isolation that unfolds as Alex and Chase investigate the people connected to Tuttle and Bannister. It’s nothing so eldritch as a curse, but, as in The Devil’s Eye, the events surrounding the central mystery seem to have soured and blighted lives. If that were not enough, poking around in such secrets once again draws unwanted attention in the form of attempted murder. None of this, not even a couple of quite-professional attempts to kill him, does much to discourage Alex, but Chase becomes increasingly uneasy with the trouble their investigation is stirring up. The case puts a severe strain on their relationship and leads to an estrangement.

It’s not just the fate of Tuttle and Bannister and some of their friends that gives this book its undercurrent of melancholy. The title could refer to the decaying but still distressing effects of whatever events surrounded the original discovery of the tablet–or to the hollow sounds of human activity in what seems to be a nearly empty universe, one that lacks even the abandoned-ruins-and-alien-artifacts atmosphere of McDevitt’s Priscilla Hutchins novels. As far as anyone can tell, there is not and never has been any company for us, aside from the rather distant Mutes, and it seems that humankind is turning inward, away from a cosmos whose marvels have declined to the status of tourist attractions, backgrounds for photos of hundredth-anniversary celebrations, or wallpaper for buffet-and-booze holiday cruises. Once again McDevitt is working with effects of scale and the emotional response to inhuman immensity. This is not the first time he has run variations on the image of people hunkering down in front of the fireplace (literal or metaphoric) while a cold wind blows outside the windows and the tenantless stars look down on the huddled homes of humankind, even if the huddles are sophisticated cities scattered across an arm of the galaxy.

The solution to the mystery does not lie exactly along that thematic line, but because this is a mystery story, I can’t describe what happens in the last third of the book, wherein the pair finally track down the origin of the tablet and have the kind of life-threatening exotic-environment adventures that make this a sure-enough science fiction mystery. The resolution is both more and less than the possibilities considered during the search, and there are surprises packed inside the surprises. And perhaps the biggest surprise is how McDevitt manages to make the odd coupling of the cozy and the cosmic into effective and moving SF.

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