Reviewed: March 1, 2006
By: Jack McDevitt
Publisher: Ace Books
400 pages, $10.99
A science fiction/mystery novel, Polaris is one of the nominees for
this year' s Nebula Award the prize presented annually by the membership of
the Science Fiction Writers of America.
This is a genre bending tale which partakes of a number of familiar ideas
to tell a new story.
Polaris is the name of a spaceship that was found drifting, with all
its crew missing, after some mysterious disaster overtook it during a scientific
expedition. The story opens on the day of these events, shifting from the scene
of the apparently calm expedition to the rescue mission that is mounted from
its home base after the Mayday is received.
The rescuers find a latter day Marie Celeste situation: one undamaged
ship, no passengers or crew, and no explanation. Searches continue for some
time; the ship continues its useful life under a new name with a new owner,
and sixty years pass as the mystery deepens and any possible trails go stone
The main part of the novel is told to us by Chase Kolpath, the attractive
field agent for antiquities dealer Alex Benedict. She and her boss don' t set
out to solve mysteries, but they do discover and market relics and lost goods
for prices high enough to let them live in fine style, and sometimes the quests
for these items may lead to a mystery or two.
This is the second of their adventures, the first having been A Talent
for War (1988). Since then the pair have settled into a partnership of brains
(Alex) and brawn (Chase) which puts me strongly in mind of the Archie Goodwin/Nero
Wolfe pairing. Alex doesn' t weigh a quarter of a ton, but his basic personality
seems to have some very Wolfish attributes. He' s lazy, vain, very intelligent
and needs to be prodded to get things done.
Chase (a great name for any sort of sleuth) goes out and does the poking
around, reporting to her boss, Alex, whose broad knowledge, rational mind (except
where it comes to his personal comfort) and flashes of insight close the cases.
This combination of talents tends to make them a handsome profit.
The relics from the Polaris are just the sort of thing that Alex would
want to market, and they strike a deal to obtain some of them. Then the rest
are destroyed in a mysterious fire, and the customers to whom Alex sold the
items he managed to acquire suddenly begin having a series of odd visits from
inquisitive people, some of whom break into their houses and take their newly
This sort of thing is not good for business, so Alex and Chase begin to look
into the matter, and quickly find themselves the targets of break-ins and at
least two attempts on their lives. Some other people are killed in related incidents.
While pursuing the matter seems to be dangerous, Alex and Chase come to the
conclusion that it might be more dangerous to let it lie. It would appear that
the only way to safeguard themselves and their clients is to take on the sixty
year old mystery of what really happened to the Polaris.
In typical mystery fashion there are lots of interviews, background searches,
expository speeches, mysterious happenings and a few action sequences before
everything is neatly tied up for us.
As a mystery, I suppose it' s a little old fashioned; the science fiction
elements give it a bit of an edge. Space travel, asteroids, secret scientific
developments and arguments about the ethics of tinkering with the basic genome
add spice to the stew. McDevitt' s work in this area is being compared to that
of the late Isaac Asimov, who wrote on both sides of the genre fence and often
produced work which crossed back and forth.
Polaris is a comfortable novel, almost future-nostalgic in its appeal
to me. I didn' t feel that it broke any new ground, but the author did some
nice landscaping on the ground he was working with.