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 cold.

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 purchased curios.

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.