Book Review: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books)

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Asteroid 2011GV, also known as Maia is on a collision course with Earth.

Probability of impact: 100%

What do you do?

Detective Henry Palace goes to work.

Since the announcement of the impending catastrophe the world is changing rapidly. Lawlessness is on the increase, suicides are at an all-time high. Technology is breaking down and no-one cares enough to fix it anymore. Most large corporations have imploded, money is worthless. Certain foods have become valuable commodities and weapons can be worth a small fortune. Many people have turned to drugs or religion, some have gone ‘bucket list’. Concord, New Hampshire Police Department is running at capacity and our newly promoted hero has stumbled upon a suicide case that just doesn’t add up.
But why should he care? It’s now March and by October Maia will seal the fate of him and anyone else left on the planet. As far as his colleagues are concerned a suicide’s a suicide.

That’s the first thing you do learn about Hank Palace: he does care. He’s a good guy, maybe the last of the good guys in this slick, witty pre-apocalyptic whodunit. The joy of this story is that it’s taking place regardless. The end of the world is secondary, right now all Hank wants is to solve a murder because it’s the right thing to do. It’s his job and you as the reader want to see him do it.

Palace may seem like your archetypal murder mystery detective, and in a lot of ways he is. Shades of Marlowe, Deckard even Holmes echo through his character in this self-narrated tale. He’s hugely pragmatic with a typically deadpan sense of humour, but Winters writes him with heart his emotional side showing mainly in exasperation of those around him, particularly his wild younger sister Nico whose husband has disappeared and whose participation here seems to be related to something much bigger that we’ve yet to see. He’s not perfect by any means. He’s no action hero, he doesn’t always get the girl and Bruce Willis won’t be playing him in the movie (at least I hope not).

As expected the narration has a very noir-ish feel, the grim events taking place in a crumbling world with failing technology means more traditional investigative techniques need to be applied which add to the feel of the experience and give it a more authentic slant falling just short of a jazz soundtrack. There are no gadgets, no huge arsenals and even Palace’s possession of a car is seen as somewhat of a luxury.

The story plays out well. As we learn more about the victim’s background other interesting characters come out of the woodwork, (some briefly but effectively) gently guiding Hank through twists and turns, some throwing him off course, some doing their utmost to stop him in his tracks. But he soldiers on. After every setback, every dead end, every beating (of which there are several – his self-defence skills are pretty awful!) Hank picks himself up, dusts himself off and keeps going and it’s this inertia that mirrors mankind’s struggle in the face of certain annihilation.

It’s hard not to like this book. While many Hollywood stereotypes and cliches could easily have emerged here they didn’t. It’s never over-melodramatic and it relies largely on common sense and a good prediction of how the human condition could develop in the face of such an impossible situation. Armageddon aside, it’s still a damn good mystery novel and a promising start to what should be a very interesting trilogy.

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