”What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?
Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.
The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares.
As Palace’s investigation plays out under the shadow of 2011GV1, we’re confronted by hard questions way beyond “whodunit.” What basis does civilization rest upon? What is life worth? What would any of us do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?”
Thoughts: In the world envisioned by Ben H. Winters in his novel, The Last Policeman, society barely continues to exist in response to the devastating news of a pending apocalyptic asteroid impact that will destroy all life on Earth. Canned goods and other nonperishable foods are the first to go, and that is just the beginning. With only six months left until impact, people are committing suicide in droves thereby forcing the police department of Concord, New Hampshire to adopt a no-investigation rule for suicides due to lack of manpower and other vital resources. Enter Detective Hank Palace, an over-eager, newly-minted detective, who stumbles upon a suicide that looks and feels suspiciously like a murder. Against this new world of desperation, despair, and hopelessness, Hank must buck the system to determine if his hunches are correct and seek resolution for yet another tragic death.
The Last Policeman excels at examining just how far society will crumble if the world were ever to face a predetermined apocalyptic event such as an asteroid impact. It is a unique premise as well, as most post-apocalyptic/dystopian fiction occurs with a sudden, unpredicted event. How people handle one is much different than how people would handle the other situation, and Mr. Winters does an excellent job distinguishing the differences. What is especially intriguing is that at the same time that society seems to be crumbling, lawlessness is not necessarily on the rise thanks to harsh measures and the suspension of habeas corpus. People are less willing to commit crimes when they know that it means incarceration for the rest of the time available to them.
Hank must work against this backdrop of apathy and resignation in order to crack the mystery of Peter Zell’s death. As one would expect, he is particularly suited for the job if only because his newness to his position and eagerness to prove himself is extremely high, almost annoyingly so. The irritation one may feel towards Hank is only compounded by his one-dimensionality. He is the stereotypical new detective, doing everything by the book and capable of reciting entire passages from police procedure handbooks. He is extremely eager to prove himself and solve his first major investigation, which causing him to follow reporting procedures – that have largely been ignored in this new world – while at the same time ignoring the advice of his fellow, more experienced detectives. The mistakes he makes are due strictly to inexperience, and older readers may groan at his naiveté as his investigation sputters. His world is still surprisingly black and white when the rest of the world has turned multiple shades of gray, and his self-righteousness at times also becomes exasperating to readers.
The story itself is fairly predictable. While there are multiple plot twists, their big reveals are not all that shocking. The entire cast of characters is flat and uninspired, and a reader will find it difficult to garner sympathy for any of them given their brief appearances and lack of any character development. However, The Last Policeman is truly not as bad as it may seem based on this assessment, as it does contain glimpses of brilliance. The story itself is immensely readable, interspersing enough details of the pre-apocalyptic world to intrigue the most apathetic reader. Also, there are hints of certain conspiracies and potential plans for survival that not only keep a reader interested from a psychological perspective but also helps indicate that there is more to the underlying story that has yet to be revealed. The unanswered questions about the role of the government, the hints at certain survival projects, and the possibilities of global war all create a fascinating underlying drama, and one hopes that the rest of the series will include more of this. While Hank is too fresh and too black-and-white for the world in which he is currently living, a reader gets the impression that sooner rather than later Hank will obtain some of the flexibility that this new world requires. One hopes that he does not become truly jaded though, as the series needs his optimism and belief in a functioning society. He just needs to stop being such a goody-two-shoes. Overall, in spite of its weaknesses, The Last Policeman provides enough thrills and mystery to leave readers engrossed enough to anticipate the sequel to this unique trilogy.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Eric Smith of Quirk Books for my review copy!