A Talent for War
The Devil’s Eye
I have been selling Jack McDevitt short. Each time I read an Alex Benedict novel, I think to myself, “That was really good. Much more to these books than just another mystery. I need to get some more of McDevitt’s stuff.” But then later on, when I’m looking at my reading pile and choosing my next book, I say something like, “Oh, Alex Benedict. That will be a quick, fun read. Nothing too deep or challenging there.” I’m not sure why I can’t keep things straight in my addled brain, but I think I owe the author a small apology. Hopefully now that I’ve read the fourth book in the series and am putting fingers to keys, I will remember the more accurate assessment when I get my hands on book number five.
All of the Benedict stories are mysteries, but not in the crime sleuth, Col. Mustard in the conservatory with the lead pipe, mold. Mr. Benedict is a purveyor of fine antiquities and the mysteries he solves are generally related to one or another of the artifacts that make it into his collection. The stories are somewhat similar to the literary thrillers that boomed briefly when Dan Brown ripped off Holy Blood, Holy Grail, but bear the closest resemblance to books like The Club Dumas, by Arturo Perez-Riverte. This is science fiction, though, so while Perez-Riverte sends his characters after art, manuscripts, pirate’s treasure and what not, Alex Benedict is dealing with spaceships, aliens, supernovae and lost planets.
Because he is not a cop or a PI, the “mystery” is usually less of a corpse in a locked room and more of a historical puzzle. Benedict gets his hands on a mysterious object of some sort, digs into the story behind it, and uncovers a disappearance, a conspiracy, or a conundrum. Sometimes there are bad guys, sometimes there are victims, and sometimes there is just an artifact and its history. Within these stories though, McDevitt creates space for his characters to explore larger questions than merely, “What is this thing, how did it get here, and what is it worth?” Intertwined with the artifacts are grand, ethical questions ranging from war, prejudice, and responsibilities as leaders or scientists, to our debt to the past. Somewhere within each mystery is a deeper question that the characters must wrestle with, rarely with easy answers.
I read the books in a slightly skeewampus order, starting with Polaris before reading A Talent for War. This is not as disorienting as it might seem, because McDevitt didn’t really settle on a template for his stories until the second book. The first is quite different for a number of reasons, even if the themes (both on and beneath the surface) are the same. Most obvious is the change of narrator. While all of the books are told in first person, Alex himself narrates only Talent. His assistant, Chase Kolpath, joins him partway through the first book and takes over narration duties from Polaris onward. This is probably a good call. Chase is a more natural voice for these stories, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. I suppose it is for the same reasons that Watson, not Holmes, tells the story.
But Talent feels a bit different from the rest of the series for other reasons as well. First off, I suspect that it was meant to be a standalone novel; only later did somebody realize that this would be a lucrative franchise. Because of this, McDevitt crams a lot into one book: a new universe and future history, a mystery, a bigger question about humanity and war, new scientific discoveries, and some things that are probably left out of later canon. In some ways, this one remains my favorite, just for the ambition. I am also a sucker for stories that force the reader to examine questions of Just War and pacifism, as Talent does in its exploration of a reluctant war hero. By telling such a big story, it makes life difficult for the follow-up novel. Once the giant mystery has been solved, how to top it?
So it is that Polaris might be the weakest of the bunch. The narrator changes to Chase, a good call as noted earlier, and the book sets out what will become a familiar pattern. Alex is now a minor celebrity, he and Chase stumble across some loot that points to a bigger question, they start digging around, some peril rears its head, the answer to the bigger question leads to an even bigger and more existential question, and things get solved in a more or less satisfactory way. The mystery in Polaris is more tightly constructed, but the ethical question pales a bit in comparison to the first book. Technically, I think Polaris is a superior work, but it’s missing a bit of the exuberance of the first book.
Seeker takes the template and improves on it in almost every way. The same pattern applies, but everything has been dialed up a notch. As Alex’s fame increases, the stakes rise accordingly and Seeker gives the biggest payoff so far. It also lets Chase get out more, unshackling her from the position of pilot and assistant to make her more of an equal to Alex. He remains the boss, to be sure, and the main brain behind the operation, but Chase gets more opportunity to use her own talents. She also grows into her role as narrator, letting more of her personality into the story, adding commentary and asides that humanize the characters. (I suppose we could say that McDevitt grows more comfortable speaking as Chase, but the books feel like it’s her own voice coming out as she gets used to telling these stories.) My only real complaint with Seeker is that, after three books of perilous encounters and break-ins, you’d think these two would upgrade their security systems a bit.
By the time The Devil’s Eye rolls around, McDevitt is flexing his storytelling muscles. He deviates a bit from the usual pattern, this time sending a troubled character to enlist aid from the famous Alex Benedict. There are fewer artifacts or history this time around, and more mystery and conspiracy. The book takes a turn for the dramatic towards the end, abandoning the traditional mystery for full on science fiction. Unfortunately, to say very much would ruin the whole thing, so I have to keep this very vague. After Seeker, I thought it would be difficult to top the ending, but this one is even bigger. McDevitt surprises me every time by finding a new way to raise the stakes on his characters. I would say that nothing could top the end of Eye, but I’ve been saying that for four books now.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the fourth book is finally seeing an overarching theme that the author is working on. I don’t know if he has slowly built this up throughout, or saw the opportunity in Eye to tie several threads together, but it was very exciting to see things take shape. Alex and the rest of humanity share the galaxy with just one other intelligent species, who they call the Mutes. The Mutes converse telepathically, and so don’t speak naturally. Because they look like large, threatening insectiles with teeth, and because they can read minds, humans hate being around them. (The feeling is, of course, mutual.) One character describes spending time with the Mutes as “like petting spiders.” The two species have had one major war and, while officially at peace, skirmish on and off. Alex and Chase have a hostile run in with them in the first book, speak briefly in the second, and have much more extensive contact in the third and fourth.
Midway through Eye, this grand theme begins to take on importance. McDevitt is slowly, almost independently of plot, exploring how two groups afflicted with mutual dislike can overcome hostile instinct and work together. This is relevant both on the off chance that we someday have our own first contact, since nothing guarantees that we’ll meet Ewoks, but also in the context of a politically divided and charged America. Both species are faced with situations where a failure to cooperate damages both sides, but widespread prejudice and base political calculations prevent any sort of rapprochement. Not unlike the current mess, where a refusal to work together is routinely pushing the country to the brink of economic cataclysm, humans and Mutes must find some way to ignore mutual repulsion and take steps towards a necessary cooperation. (The Liberal Institutionalist in me is quivering with joy.)
Hopefully I have banished the remnants of my “Alex Benedict is airy fun” misconception. These are serious books that ask serious questions, wrapped in a delicious candy shell of sci-fi historical mystery, rather like biting into an M&M to find a Belgian chocolate truffle.
Rating: Chelsea. Every year I think, “Chelsea is old, predictable, and finally going to fall out of Champion’s League contention,” and every year Chelsea challenges for a title right up until the end. (Alex Benedict is not, however, owned by a Russian billionaire with shady business contacts and a suspicious history.)