Review: The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters

Certain phenomena contribute to crime rates. Full moons. Sporting events. Or, say, a giant asteroid on a collision course with Earth, threatening to snuff out all life.

Wait, what?

Thus is the premise of Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman (Quirk Books, 2012).

The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters

Henry Palace is a newly minted detective on the Concord (New Hampshire) Police Department. A beat cop for just over a year, Henry was promoted a few months ago due to the unusual circumstances; scientists calculated with 100% certainty that an asteroid with a seven kilometer radius would soon strike Earth. In the wake of this catastrophic knowledge, the global economy has collapsed, society has disintegrated, and people are “going bucket list,” using what time they have left to do all the things they’ve always wanted. Meanwhile, Detective Palace is in a McDonald’s restroom in the middle of the night, the scene of a another “hanger.” Palace isn’t sure that Peter Zell’s was a straightforward suicide. But who’s solving crimes with the apocalypse coming?

Motivation–in police jargon, “motive”–is a concern of Winters’. Of course, given the scenario he constructs, Winters is interested in how people face the threat of imminent death. Winters portrays a world tottering forward despite the promise of its certain demise. Many people, including the suicide, Zell, an actuary, continue to go to work, the end of the world notwithstanding. It’s as if routine is an opiate, making bearable the knowledge of the coming cataclysm, or perhaps an instinct, a behavior coded so deeply into our beings that we’re powerless to do otherwise. Palace, mysteriously, almost supernaturally, remains calm and focused on the events immediately before him, the little pieces that seem so inconsequential compared to the larger story. Palace is the kind of quiet, workaday person who would be unremarkable in normal circumstances, but who, in his stolid acceptance of the hopeless future, and his defiance of it, by doing his job the best that he can, achieves heroic status.

Really, when you get down to it, The Last Policeman is less a detective story–although it is that–than it is an existential mystery. When Palace begins considering the “motive” of Zell’s murderer, he inadvertently raises the question of his motive, of why he continues to care in a world gone mad. Palace’s fellow detectives retreat into their own consolations, whether it’s conspiracy theory, or gluttony, or smoking marijuana (which has been legalized). Palace plods onward, applying to the case the lessons he learned from textbooks on police work.

Ultimately, Winters’ asteroid might be read as a metaphor. Aren’t we all dying, whether or not a giant rock plows into Earth? There are fleeting moments when we’re aware of “the human endeavor,” the “connectedness” of all things, if you will, but our individual wants and needs crowd out that awareness. (There is a scene in the sequel, Countdown City, in which a college student forlornly caresses his dead iPhone, as if it’s still operational, that expertly captures our tendency toward solipsism.) On that level, the individual, personal level, we’re all facing down our own doom; when we die, we’re dead and gone, whether by asteroid, hanging, or getting hit by a bus. Like Winters’ characters, we carry on knowing that we will die. How we do so, and why, is the real mystery at the heart of Winters’ novel.

That’s not to say that Winters doesn’t deliver a satisfying “whodunnit.” Zell’s death and the circumstances surrounding it are well crafted, and Winters introduces us to a variety of characters, from Zell’s family, to his former best friend, drug dealer Toussaint, to Palace’s love interest, Naomi Eddes. The latter is particularly welcome, as she serves to humanize Palace, who is sometimes so literal and intense as to border on being alien, a notion supported by his appearance (very tall, and, I imagine, quite thin).

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Indeed, if there is a weakness in The Last Policeman, it is the character of Palace, who, despite being the narrator, remains frustratingly opaque for much of the early portion of the novel. The first person narrative device, of course, limits readers’ knowledge to only that which Palace himself knows, serving an important function in terms of the mystery. Likewise, first person permits Winters to describe events as they’re being experienced by a character living through them. Still, it is not until the story is well underway that readers first begin to catch glimpses of Palace’s character–of his motives and motivations. Humorless, intense, Palace responds to his colleagues’ jokes dismissively, with “Okay,” and, “Sure.” He doesn’t have time for the niceties that permit people to function in normal society, especially when the world’s about to end and time is short. Palace’s back story informs his present, and readers will welcome the revelations as they’re shared. The character of Palace’s younger sister, “Nico,” not only serves to further humanize him, but also advances a subplot that carries into, and plays a larger role in, Countdown City.

Winters received the Edgar Award for The Last Policeman, an honor of which readers are likely to approve. Winters uses a compelling, plausible end of the world scenario to establish a fatalistic atmosphere that lends itself both to a detective story and to the larger philosophical questions in which he’s interested. The sense of doom Winters creates, his vision of collapse, renders the story poignant; readers will find themselves drawn in. The characters are well drawn and recognizable; Winters manages to humanize Palace and invest readers in his fate. The Last Policeman will appeal to lovers of mysteries and speculative fiction, but fantasists should beware: This novel remains firmly in the real world, and Detective Palace wouldn’t have it any other way. Highly recommended.

The follow up to The Last PolicemanCountdown City, was published in July 2013. The last novel in the trilogy, World of Trouble, will be published on July 15, 2014.

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6 thoughts on “Review: The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters

  1. Tabitha (Not Yet Read)

    I really don’t know if I COULD care in a world gone mad. Odd that i find this review when I just read Mogsy’s review of the final book. Ultimately not a trilogy for me but definitely a fascinating sounding one covering how humanity could degrade in the face of impending doooooooom

    Reply
  2. Mogsy

    Oh yes, these books get better and better, and even more existentialist! One of the more unique series I’ve read in recent years, and I love the author’s interpretation of a world marching towards certain doom and how he worked in a police procedural element.

    Reply
  3. fromcouchtomoon

    I’m so glad you read this book! My interest was piqued when it tied for the PKD award. It seemed to come out of nowhere.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Reading update: apocalypse now, or in six months | Genre-bending

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