Echo (Alex Benedict)
by Jack McDevitt
Cover Artist: John Harris
Review by Steve Sawicki
Ace Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441019243
Date: 02 November 2010 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
This is the fifth novel in McDevitt's Alex Benedict series. Benedict is a bit of an eccentric dealer in antiques and collectibles who often finds himself in the middle of mysteries initiated by the search for those very same things. In this case Alex, and his assistant Chase Kolpath, are after a stone tablet that could be an artifact of an alien species.
In McDevitt's universe humans are quite alone, even after years of searching for other life, so the finding of anything that could show the existence of another species is a very big deal. The stone tablet has been sitting in the garden of a woman who now just wants to get rid of it. Alex sees the notice offering it to all takers and has Chase pursue the acquisition. Chase makes arrangement to pick the tablet up but when she arrives she finds that someone else has gotten there first and taken it away.
A quick investigation leads to the facts that the garden the table was found in was part of the house that once belonged to Sunset Tuttle, a man who spent his life looking for evidence of alien life. Oddly enough, the person who got to the table before Chase was one Rachel Bannister, Tuttle's former lover and an intergalactic pilot. When Alex tries to purchase the tablet from her he is told she decided she didn't want it and had it dumped in the river. Alex soon discerns that this is far from the truth and thus begins the pursuit.
McDevitt proposes that intelligence is unique in the universe, that while there are thousands and thousands of planets, even those that exist within habitable zones are empty of life of any form and that the places where life does exist lack any thought processes that go beyond simple primates. This eventually turns most of humanity from looking outward to looking inward in a sort of fatalistic navel contemplation that some think will lead to the end of civilization. It is within this framework that McDevitt sets his story and moves his characters. The Alex Benedict series is reminiscent of some of the work of Isaac Asimov who also loved to mix science fiction and mystery. So, while the setting is science fictional the story is a mystery.
I like this series and I like McDevitt's writing. McDevitt writes science fiction without relying on heavy exposition to explain the science but still being able to manage to tell that story within the scientific framework. That he is also able to develop his characters and produce an interesting and workable mystery story on top of all the scientific structure belies his skill as a writer. Twenty years from now reviewers will be comparing other writers to McDevitt as a means of positive comparison. This book is highly recommended and sure to be a joy to all who read it.