The Author Comments: Polaris

Jack McDevitt

There was a radio show back in the 40's whose title said it all: I Love a Mystery. It was produced by Carlton E. Morse, and it chronicles the adevntures of three detectives, Jack Packard, Doc Long, and Reggie York. Reggie was the muscle in the group, and I discovered later that he was played by Tony Randall. The show was pure magic. It was far more than simply a whodunit. Any private eye could work out a simple killing for insurance. Or for passion. But the three comrades, as they were called, were faced with locked room mayhem, with what was really going on in the Temple of Vampires, with the terrible truth about Bury Your Dead, Arizona, which was located at the end of a railroad line.

Gilbert Keith Chesteron's Father Brown also faced mysterious situations which were more than simple murders. Chesterton not only gave us a locked room, but the victim was killed by an arrow.

Polaris is intended to be a mystery in that tradition. It is the Mary Celeste, moved forward 10,000 years or so, into an interstellar milieu. When the book's protagonist, Alex Benedict, arrives on the scene, the Polaris is already old news. The captain and passengers of the ill-fated starship have been missing sixty years. There've been investigations, there was the equivalent of a presidential commission, and by Alex's time, the entire affair has been relegated to history and myth.

While writing Polaris, I discovered why Watson narrates the Holmes stories. The first draft of the novel used Alex as the first-person viewpoint character. (He serves the same function in A Talent for War.) I got away with it then, but I saw it wouldn't work with this one. As Alex looked into various possibilities, he had no choice but to bring the reader in on them. This had the dual effect of spoiling things too early, and it also created problems with the pacing.

The second draft gave the narration to Chase. And that turned out to be a lucky stroke. She doesn't take things quite as seriously as Alex does, so she delivers a more energetic, if often less-informed, account. It is, in fact, a vastly different book in her hands.

Watson is on Baker Street so he can ask Holmes what on earth is going on, and Holmes can answer, or not, depending on what he suspects, or on Conan Doyle's wish to run the suspense out a bit farther. It's the role a second banana always plays, I suppose.

Now that I think of it, I don't recall a second banana on I Love a Mystery. Makes me wonder how Morse pulled it off.

For those interested in such things, the book took nine months to write, went through about nine drafts. And I was unsure until I hit the epilogue how it was going to end.

— Jack McDevitt
November 2004


Updated by webspinner