The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
What if the world really would end in the next six months and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it? What would you do? Would you quit your job and start doing everything on your “bucket list?” Cash in all your savings and plan to party ‘til the end? Look up old friends and lost family members? Hunt down people who had done you wrong? Devote yourself to doing good works? Or would you stay in your home town and try to maintain a sense of normalcy?
This is the premise of Ben H. Winters’s novel The Last Policeman (2012). The book is a police procedural, set in the present day, with one big difference. In the world of Hank Palace, the main character and first-person narrator, astrophysicists have identified a large asteroid on a collision course with earth. It will strike in early October. There is no error, there is no way to destroy it, there is no way to shift its course.
Some people take the news worse than others.
“Caucasian male. Thirty-eight years old. He worked in insurance.”
“And let me guess,” says Dotseth. “He was eaten by a shark. Oh, wait, no: suicide. Is it suicide?”
“It appears that way.”
“Shocked I am! Shocked!”
Hank and Dotseth are having this conversation over the body of a man who apparently strangled himself with a belt in a McDonald’s men’s room. Hank is the most-recently promoted detective in the capital city of Concord, New Hampshire, and something seems off to him about this death. Concord has earned the nickname “hanger town” for the number of suicides who seem to hang or strangle themselves there. Hank, at first, can’t articulate exactly what bothers him about the death of Peter Zell, an actuary for a life insurance company, but he faces a more serious problem back at the cop-shop. Even if it is a murder, nobody cares. Why solve a murder when we’re all going to die anyway?
As the book opens, Hank’s sense of conviction seems based on his youth and sincerity. He is clearly a good investigator with a keen ear for lies and good analytical skills. He is also a regular guy in a world that is now anything but regular. Winters does a crackerjack job of showing us the fissures that have opened up around Hank (and everyone) without making the book about the apocalypse. There are plenty of everyday clues; patchy cell phone service and the spiking cost of fossil fuel as people walk off their jobs and systems collapse; increasingly draconian federal laws aimed at curbing social unrest; doomsday prophets with their leaflets, who are right this time; the increasing sense of quiet desperation that takes the form of gallows humor; betting pools about where the asteroid will hit; conspiracy theories.
This all happens around Hank while he is focused on, or perhaps obsessed with, solving the suspicious death of Peter Zell. He is distracted by his younger sister who asks him to find her missing husband, and by a woman, Naomi, who works at the same insurance company Zell did. Hank is a smart, dedicated guy, but he is far from perfect. He misreads the signals of one of his fellow detectives, in part because of his youth and inexperience, but also, at least partly, out of a sense of his own denial. A large part of the book addresses the way people deal with the certainly (and ironically, the uncertainty) of impending destruction. For instance, people really want to know where the asteroid will strike, even though in the long run it won’t make any difference.
We also discover that Hank has a deeply personal reason for wanting to solve a death by hanging. It explains, in part, his difficult relationship with his troubled sister Nico, and why he is willing to go to an off-limits army base to find out what happened to Nico’s missing husband.
The mystery itself is well done. This is a book where you might think you know the “who” (and you may be right) but you probably won’t figure out the “why” until the very end. I thought in one or two places Winters veered into sentimental clichés, but for the most part, this is a convincing portrait of one man trying to hold his life together when there is no way he, or anyone else, can.
Hank’s sheer humanity carries this book. I cared about him and I cared about Nico. I wanted him to have an answer, even if it was only a small one, about one life snuffed out.
Because I read Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman and Countdown City over the course of a day and a half, I’m going to review them together rather than singly. Though really, the fact that I read them both in that time period is probably all you need to know about what I thought of them.
The two novels are set in Concord, New Hampshire, and center on newly-made detective Hank Palace as he tries to solve a possible murder/insurance fraud in the first novel and a missing persons case in the second. Oh yeah, and there’s also the little matter of the imminent collapse of human society thanks to the extinction-level asteroid coming Earth’s way in six months in The Last Policeman and in only 77 days in Countdown City.
Typically, these sorts of stories give us a somewhat world-weary detective facing multiple obstacles in order to get to the truth and restore at least a semblance of order on the (possibly very small) world. Here, though, there will be no restoration of world order, as the world is about to end. And the “obstacles” aren’t simply a corrupt or slow bureaucracy, but an entire society that has pretty much given up: people are leaving their jobs in droves, “going bucket” to realize dreams they once had; communication lines are dying off as employees disappear and people stop paying bills; even McDonald’s has shut down. Our first-person narrator Hank describes the current situation this way:
There are differences in behavior, but they are on the margins. The main difference, from a law-enforcement perspective, is more atmospheric. . The mood here in town is that of the child who isn’t in trouble yet, but knows he’s going to be. He’s up in his room, waiting. “Just wait till your father gets home.” He’s sullen and snappish, he’s on edge. Confused, sad, trembling against the knowledge of what’s coming next, and right on the edge of violence, not angry but anxious in a way that can easily shade into anger.
As for the authorities, the police force is down to less than a skeletal staff (though they and the government are the only ones still able to have cars or gas); the crime lab is nearly non-existent; and anyway, who cares whether someone commits a crime at this point? As for world-weary, well, Hank is young, a relative innocent in the ways of the normal world, let alone this one, and he’s tired of “People hiding behind the asteroid, like it’s an excuse for poor conduct, for miserable and desperate and selfish behavior.”
And there is a good amount of that sort of behavior going on as Hank tries against all odds to solve the murder of Peter Fell, insurance investigator found with a belt wrapped around his neck in a pirate McDonald’s bathroom, though everyone else simply dismisses him as the typical “hangar” — the suicide method of choice in Concord (other regions have their own favorite methods).
Hank’s desire to do a job well contrasts the wry fatalism that runs throughout most of the novel, either in the background (references to end-of-the-world songs playing) or in the foreground via dialog:
I used to want to be a cop.
Hey, it’s never too late.
Well, it is though.
In The Last Policeman, the asteroid and the reactions to it mostly plays out in this fatalism: sometimes dry, sometimes sad, occasionally but rarely violent. I really liked the fact that Winter doesn’t dwell on the asteroid itself, whose discovery, approach and impending results are only gradually and minimally revealed. This is a quiet pre-apocalyptic novel, not a bang-bang Road Warrior/The Road sort of post-apocalyptic one.
The mystery is well plotted and interesting in its own right, but really what makes this book (both books) so compelling is the rich pre-apocalyptic atmosphere and Hank’s characterization, along with other characters that come in and out of the mix — his somewhat oddball sister, who is mixed up with conspiracy theorists; Dr. Fenton, the local coroner who also believes in a job done well regardless of context; Sgt. Culverson, a mentor figure for Hank; and a host of others large and small.
By the time of Countdown City, the more imminent end has turned Concord much more dangerous as people begin to hoard food, loot, use guns to defend themselves or take from others, and so on. Hank is no longer on the force by this time, so as he looks for the missing husband of a childhood friend, his difficulties are exponentially higher, especially as he no longer has vehicle access and has to bike/walk everywhere. Countdown City is a darker, grimmer, more violent work, but still with lots of the wry gallows humor of the first book.
I only had a few minor, very minor, complaints. One is we have a few too many shootout/helicopter-at-the-last-minute moments, though really there aren’t all that many. It’s just that the focus on people and relationships is so quietly good that those moments are a bit jarring, though they do make perfect sense in the context of the setting (save for that damn helicopter arrival). Another is that the missing husband character is played a bit too goody-goody with the “He’s just Brett” phrase used a bit too freely. But as I mentioned, these were minor complaints. I was captivated by both setting and character in both, opening up Countdown City on my Kindle immediately upon finishing The Last Policeman. I can’t wait for the concluding book coming sometime this year. Highly recommended.
I couldn’t put it down. I loved the audio edition narrated by Peter Berkrot.
~Kat Hooper (2022)