Ben H. Winters’ Edgar Award-winning The Last Policeman was one of the standout SF surprises of last year. A clever, witty, intelligent pre-apocalyptic mystery with a lot of heart and a fine hero in it’s eminently likeable protagonist, Henry Palace.
But there is still a story to be told. While Henry had solved his former case, he now faces forced retirement from the Concord Police Department due to the ever-worsening breakdown in society as asteroid Maia hurtles ever closer to Earth and the need for crime solving has been replaced with the need for maintaining even the most basic order.
However Henry’s a detective. That’s what he does, and continues to do. A request from his former babysitter Martha to find her missing husband Brett Cavatone sends him off on another adventure, this time on two wheels (his police-issue vehicle has been replaced with a bicycle, along with a trailer to carry Houdini, his newfound Bichon Frise from book one.)
Not unlike Henry’s former case, a disappearance of this type is not uncommon these days, with those not opting for suicide going “bucket list” or finding themselves with various religions. Nevertheless, he is convinced that something is amiss as Martha claims his disappearance is totally uncharacteristic and he has disappeared while on an errand for her father, one of the few restaurant owners left in Concord. As the investigation progresses we see Hank come in contact again with his rebellious sister Nico, who’s association with a mysterious group may be linked to Brett’s disappearance.
We also see the return of some characters from The Last Policeman as Henry tries to maintain his tenuous relationship with his former colleagues in the C.P.D., they themselves pushed to breaking point as Concord and the world at large deteriorates around them. Things are changing fast and Concord has become a much darker and dangerous place than we remember in The Last Policeman. Fear and paranoia are growing at an exponential rate. Food and water is becoming scarce, orphaned children are roaming the streets. Refugees from Asia (the projected point of Maia’s impact) are attempting to enter by sea, now policed by armed militia attempting to keep the borders closed.
What’s a little unsettling is how the tone of Henry’s matter-of-fact narrative remains the same regardless of what’s happening around him, all the while carefully negotiating his rapidly crumbling surroundings and engaging only those he needs to. You do get the distinct impression that he is trying his best not to let what’s happening change him, but as the story progresses chinks in his armour do start to show. It’s not necessarily a weaker Hank Palace in this book, but he does have to work a lot harder to keep it together. His resources are extremely limited now and he does all he can to hold on to some semblance of his former life, even down to still wearing his suit.
We also get a little more insight to his relationship with his sister Nico. Hank puts aside his disappointment at her past behaviour to ask her help in finding Brett but he loves her and feels the need to protect her regardless of what she’s done although at times in this book it’s Hank that needs protecting more than Nico as she’s a lot tougher and resourceful than her brother gives her credit for.
Although the tone of Countdown City is much darker, Winters paints a picture of a society where even under the most impossible of circumstances a glimmer of hope can still exist among the despair and violence. It’s an astute observation of how quickly such a decline can happen and the lengths people will go to to survive, if only for a short time and it raises many philosophical questions but never preaches. It’s a fine companion to The Last Policeman and just as enjoyable and though we may know the ultimate conclusion of this story, what happens in the meantime is well worth the investment.