Alex Benedict, who was probably never intended to be McDevitt’s galactic Sherlock Holmes, has come in a torrent these last few years. (According to this interview, a franchise was never in the plans.) After a fifteen year break between novels one and two, McDevitt has cranked out five new stories since 2004. The fourth of these, and fifth overall, recently made its way into paperback, and from there to the library’s Monthly Recommended section, where I found it waiting for me the same way others find dogs at the animal shelter. (Yes, while other more sensitive types have their hearts stolen by corgis in cages, I hear the seductive call of books on shelves. “Check us out!” they say, “It doesn’t matter that you have seven other books waiting on your desk!”) And so even though I just finished Alex Benedict Part Four and reviewed it here, Echo proved to be too much for my meager defenses.
Echo follows the now standard ABP (Alex Benedict Procedure). Alex gets a lead on some strange artifact, he quickly finds out that there’s more to the story, someone tries to threaten him off the case, Chase Kolpath flies them out to some crazy place, they’re almost killed, the mystery opens up into something much bigger than anyone thought possible, Important Questions are asked, and Alex somehow saves everyone. Despite knowing how the action is going to unfold, I still find myself waiting with baited breath for the whats and whys of the story. McDevitt has a big universe to work with and plenty of opportunity for mystery.
In many ways, though, the details of the mystery are only hooks upon which McDevitt hangs the bigger questions he likes to investigate. In this way, while the books are written in chronological order, they zig and zag thematically. Echo engages more in some of the questions posed in Seeker, specifically the validity of Benedict’s profession. While The Devil’s Eye was concerned primarily with The Mutes, that arc seems to have resolved itself for now, leaving the characters freedom to roam in other directions. Again like Seeker, Echo lets the plot to more heavy lifting than the philosophy, as compared to the rest of the series. Ethics flit in and out of the picture, but in the end, the action is the focus, as is the question of just how many aliens are actually out there.
At this point, I should probably confess that I am more ambivalent about this book than I have been the previous four. Straight up, I feel that it’s the weakest of the five, for a couple of reasons. First, and this is pure speculation and armchair psychology on my part, it reads a little like McDevitt is getting tired of the series. (This jars with the increasing publishing schedule; contract obligations perhaps?) Early in the book, I read a passage and thought, “That’s it. He’s setting up Benedict to end here.” The questions from Seeker get louder, people in the story forget that Alex is single-handedly responsible for new stardrive tech, saving a planet, and bringing peace to The Mutes and humanity, and start whining about how he’s a mercenary grave robber. Alex and Chase lose heart in the pursuit, and (SPOILER ALERT) Chase even resigns for awhile. (Spoilers off.) The recent publication of the sixth book in the series proves that Alex does not throw in the towel at the end of the book, but the whole story is suffused with weariness. Melancholy stories are fine, I’m not complaining about that. But when it feels like the author is tired of it all? Even the assassination attempts fail to get much of a rise out of the pair, so they just plod on with plain indifference.
Second, and this is where I really suspect contractual obligations come into play, the story just isn’t as tightly assembled as others. Coincidences and luck begin to pile up by the end, the connections between certain events and characters seem a bit frayed, and the why of the mystery is less satisfying. There are a lot of moving parts connecting the stone tablets Chase finds at the beginning to the shocking reveal Alex uncovers at the end, and not all of those parts are well-oiled. The what of the mystery is big and exciting, enough so to offset the other shortcomings, but Echo just isn’t up to the high standards set by the other books. I am curious if this is my own opinion, or if others feel the same. An initial survey of reviews suggests that I am in the minority here, but I suppose time will tell.
Looking at the broader picture, Echo may just be suffering by its placement in the series. The end of the book suggests that Alex and Chase could be moving in an exciting new direction, as McDevitt opens up his universe to new possibilities. But Echo acts primarily as a launching pad for the future trajectory rather than a satisfying episode. The previous installment was the culmination of a slow burning but intense story arc that saw a planet escape certain extinction at the same time humanity’s soul found tentative salvation. It’s a bit hard to top this, which is part of the reason that Polaris, coming as it does after the all-consuming resolution of A Talent For War, feels a bit small-time as well. That said, the story seemed dogged by author and character disillusion, as well as some plot sloppiness.
So do I recommend it? Yes, if for no other reason than the series as a whole gets high marks and one book has to be the weakest. I will reserve full judgment until after I read the newest volume, but for now, I am assuming that it will all be worth it in the end. Also, the suggestion that both characters might find a romantic partner that is not the other is worth most of the other silliness.
Rating: Brazil in an off year. Still better than most of the competition, but just lacking some sparkle and verve.