It is difficult to write a review of World of Trouble (Quirk, 2014) that is in no way spoilery. Fans of The Last Policeman series are keen to know what will happen to Detective Henry Palace, to his sister and friends, indeed, to the entire world, because Earth is only days away from being struck by an asteroid similar in size to the one that killed the dinosaurs. Did Henry find his sister? Is his sister really part of a plan to save the world? Will her group’s rogue plan work?
But I’m not going to tell you. I’m not even going to hint at what’s to come, because you deserve to learn it directly from Ben Winters, who, with World of Trouble, proves himself a master of suspense. Instead, I’m going to address you, one reader to another, to make plain to you just how affecting Winters’s novel is. That I’m writing in this in first person, a voice I normally eschew in reviews, is a testament the poignancy of the story.
A note for those of you who haven’t read The Last Policeman and Countdown City: World of Trouble is the final entry in a coherent trilogy. Although you may be able to follow the story without having read its predecessors, as Winters provides exposition on the events leading up to World of Trouble, I recommend that you read the novel as it’s intended, as the culmination of a series.
The plot is straightforward: Palace and the thief, Cortez, set out from Massachusetts, heading to Ohio, in search of Nico, Henry’s sister. Meanwhile, with the asteroid only a week away, civilization has reached its nadir. If The Last Policeman was really about what people do as they face death, and Countdown City an exploration of our relationships (“contracts”), then World of Trouble is a meditation on the narratives we construct, the meanings we create, as we navigate the world, en route to our final destinations. We cleave to religion, we cling to conspiracy theories, or, like Henry, we stubbornly insist on whatever “truth” is immediately in front of us. “I am a question mark pointed at a secret,” Henry says. “Cortez is a tool aimed at the stubborn places of the world.” Police work is not simply Henry’s job; it’s his raison d’être.
Of course, Winters veils these existential musings behind the procedural framework of a detective story. Here, Henry gives meaning to what may be his last week on Earth by seeking out his sister, who went missing in Countdown City. Nico insisted that she and her friends had access to a secret means of repelling the asteroid, and Henry last saw her departing in a helicopter for parts unknown. This is a missing persons, case, then, and Henry applies all the detective skills he’s learned–mostly from textbooks–to solve it.
Palace’s and Cortez’s journey to Ohio reveals the gamut of society’s decay as humanity faces its end. Palace and Cortez create a new taxonomy to describe the towns through which they pass: “Red” towns are troubled, dissolved into violence; “blue” towns are on edge, mainly peaceful, but apt to erupt; “green” towns have somehow achieved peace. The citizenry of one green town gathers on the commons to sing hymns. In another, all the lawns are mowed. Details such as these lend to World of Trouble a reality absent from many “apocalyptic” novels. We are trained to believe the worst, that everyone would turn on each other, and we’re right: The worst would happen. But Winters gently corrects us, noting that people are capable of better, too, and that good things can occur even in the worst of circumstances.
Palace encounters a variety of responses to the world’s end. He’s fed by a hedonistic couple living in an RV in a parking lot. They spend their days listening to rock, getting drunk, and having sex. A convoy of Midwestern-types stops at a Target-style store to scavenge. Palace marvels at their organization, at the way one guard stares at the sky, bored, whereas, just a few months earlier, she would have played with her phone. An Amish family in Ohio exists in an oasis of peace and plenty. Palace’s response is to move ever forward, eyes on the prize: Find Nico. Each encounter, good and otherwise, becomes a step on this quest, a problem to be solved. It’s not the asteroid that troubles Palace, it’s the need for answers.
As with The Last Policeman and Countdown City, World of Trouble is told from Henry’s perspective, ensuring that the reader is deeply embedded in the mystery until the very end. Winters’s prose is at its best here, revealing not only Henry’s character, but also the world in which he operates (as befits a detective). The story beckons us forward, faster now, faster, desperate to know what twist will next befall Palace as he searches for Nico. We’re urged on, too, of course, by our need to know if her conspiracy is real, if the asteroid might be stopped, if it will really hit–and, if so, what happens then.
But that’s something you can only find out by reading the book.
As I read World of Trouble, I was reminded of lyrics from a song (by Tim O’Brien) of the same title: “It’s a world of trouble, it’s a world of pain / The clouds, they see me comin’, and they know it’s time to rain.” And that’s what it’s like for Henry Palace, though he faces it with a grace, I imagine, far superior to that most of us are capable of.
We’re just over halfway through 2014 and, over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a number of lists of “best books of the year so far.” World of Trouble, out on July 15, didn’t make any of those lists. I predict its inclusion on the “best of” lists that will be composed later this year. It’s that good. Highly recommended.