I always appreciate finding an author, being mildly entertained, and then seeing him or her raise their game in a new book. That's more or less what I found in this novel, the third in a series. I read Brown's second Bengal Station novel, Xenopath, last summer and enjoyed myself. In this case, however, Brown took what worked best previously and trimmed away the rest.
The last book, set on a space station hovering high above the Indian Ocean, was basically a sci-fi whodunit. The action was interesting and, in places, the station was as much a character as anything else. What I liked best about it, though, was the thoughtful character development of Jeff Vaughn, telepathic P.I. The attentions Brown gave his leading man spilled over to the secondary characters and went a long way to making the book readable. In Cosmopath, he has taken that strength and used it to anchor an otherwise mild space-thriller.
Jeff Vaughn has it made. He's working at his leisure for a high profile investigation firm, has a doting family, and can read people's minds (but only when he's switched on). This is where the killer enters, of course, but it comes with a much more personal twist hot on its heels: one of Jeff's daughters has leukemia. At first glance this, like the Indian backdrop, may seem trite, but the execution overcomes any serious banality. There are no scenes of Li fighting for her life and, mercifully, no use of the phrase "brave little soldier." Instead, Brown uses the illness as a powerful personal motivator to send Jeff in the direction the plot needs him to go.
In this distant future, the human race has been steadily pushing into new territories, new planets, in an ever-growing sphere called the Expansion. Just at the edge of it, a ship has gone missing and Vaughn is hired by a space-liner tycoon to accompany the search party. Vaughn's role in the mission is to play the part of necropath, someone who can read the thoughts of the dying or recently dead. It's a rather gruesome task and one Vaughn has taken on before. While I was not a fan of Brown's attitude towards life's final moments, I did find his character's revulsion to the deed complex and deftly handled. As a reader, I was able to share Vaughn's terror at the prospect of reading someone's mind at the moment of death while also pitying him from a safe distance. In general, I found Brown's conceptualization of telepathy interesting. It is not an evolution of human physiology, but rather a technological innovation. Furthermore, it is not an all powerful omnipotence. Characters have to deal with the ethical dilemmas of reading those close to them and the occasional frustration of being blocked by someone with vital information.