Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The latest in Jack McDevitt’s stories of Chase Kolpath and Alex Benedict, Echo begins with a standard McDevitt-style mcguffin to get the action moving. Kolpath is arranging to pick up a tablet with strange ciphers on it. The tablet was found as a decoration in the garden of a house that once belonged to the notorious crackpot and alien hunter, Somerset Tuttle. Before Kolpath can acquire the artifact, it disappears and the Benedict and Kolpath begin their investigation into the tablet’s origin and importance.
Once again using Chase as his narrator, McDevitt plays with the expectations of long-time readers. His universe is devoid of aliens, with the exception of the Mutes, who hardly seem to matter. Tuttle, however, was an alien hunter extraordinaire who may have discovered an alien civilization shortly before his death, something Chase and Benedict hope will be revealed by the missing tablet. Most of the novel follows Chase as she tries to track down first the tablet and then Tuttle’s widely-scattered associates, not all of whom are eager to have the pasts dredged up, and not all of whom are truthful.
McDevitt, as always, is adept at introducing red herrings to his writing, leading not only Benedict and Kolpath on wild goose chases, but the reader as well. While many novels only posit a few possible suspects, Echo has a plethora of them, and in some cases puts forward individuals who are clearly in the employ of a shadowy mastermind to whom Chase and Benedict may, or may not, have already spoken. Similarly, by following only Chase, but making clear that Benedict is also pursuing leads, McDevitt widens his playing field.
In Echo, McDevitt also addresses the less savory aspect of Chase & Benedict’s company. In retaliation for their investigations, a whisper campaign about Benedict’s business begins in which Benedict is depicted not as an antiquities dealer, but rather as a grave robber, someone who goes in and retrieves relics before the archaeologists can arrive, who purports to sell artifacts owned by the famous, and who care more about his larger-than-life persona than about the ethics of what he is doing. The attacks get so bad that Chase finds herself reconsidering her long-time employment with Benedict and considers the possibility of other careers.
In some ways, Echo shouldn’t work as well as it does. Part way through the novel, it becomes clear that the tablet is merely a narrative device, important in setting the story in motion, but unimportant to the eventual resolution. Similarly, many of the questions that are raised are ignored, especially in the final third of the novel in which Chase and Benedict begin to get answers, although not always to the questions they are asking. The novel works, however, because McDevitt makes the reader care about whatever Chase and Benedict are dealing with at any particular moment. What is important to the characters is also important to the reader.
When McDevitt brings out his final revelation, it seems almost anticlimactic, but it doesn’t really matter. By that point, McDevitt has drawn the reader with with his storytelling and characters, allowing the various mysteries to take a back seat. More to the point, as he often does, McDevitt leaves hints of other potential plots scattered enticingly throughout the novel.
*Disclaimer: About eight months before Echo was published, I received an e-mail from McDevitt asking permission to use my name in a throw-away reference since it fit the rhythms he felt he needed. Of course, I said yes and when reading the book I came across a single paragraph in which my name appears. I’m glad to say that the rest of the book lives up to the high quality of that single paragraph.
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