Friday, July 6, 2012
Review: The Last Policeman: A Novel by Ben H. Winters
What would you do if the world was ending in six months? Would you make it to the end, or would you check out? These are the questions that plague the reader while reading The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. These are the questions that plagued me while I quickly read this intriguing pre-apocalyptic police procedural.
The world and its people have six months left to live until the massive asteroid known as Maia or 2011GV1 makes impact and sets off a chain of destructive events that will rapidly overwhelm the whole planet. As people decide what to do with the last days of their lives, civilization begins a slow collapse as many leave their jobs to fulfill lifetime dreams or spend time with family, and while massive amounts of people across the globe turn to religion looking for hope, others find the answer in suicide. So at six months to impact, civilization's real collapse is near as most have physically or mentally 'checked out,' and what was once important has become incidental. That is to everyone, but Detective Hank Palace.
Our story begins as Detective Hank Palace is called to investigate what appears to be a suicide by hanging in the bathroom of a McDonald's in Concord, New Hampshire. In his short career as a detective, all the deaths Hank has investigated have been suicides, and since Concord is known as a "hanger town" because that is the popular suicide method, at first it appears that is also the answer to Peter Zell's death. However, as Hank observes the scene in detail, something doesn't seem right. Hank declares Peter Zell's death suspicious and begins a murder investigation. This becomes a source of disbelief and amusement to everyone Hank comes in contact with throughout his investigation, including his co-workers who, although still on the job, have already checked out psychologically.
One of the aspects that makes The Last Policeman gripping as a pre-apocalyptic science fiction story is that Winters sets it in what seems to be contemporary times and not a futuristic or unreal world. In other words, these events could happen... anytime. Of course that makes the circumstances in this book realistically bizarre and unsettling for the reader. I found this to be one of the most effective aspects to the story. What would you do?
In this case, Hank Palace is Winter's case study. Hank is a most interesting character too. A man whose way of dealing with the upcoming apocalypse is to concentrate on the daily grind, on the here and now -- at least on the surface. Frankly since this is the beginning of a trilogy, there is still much to be learned about Hank and what drives him. I personally can't wait to see where his emotions take him as the final time approaches.
However in The Last Policeman, in his own anal and obsessive way, Hank serves as a microcosm of humanity's conscience when there is no real conscience left -- he is what is left of civilization when civilization is crumbling around him. When nobody cares whether Peter Zell committed suicide or was murdered, Hank does... and later when Hank's sister calls him to investigate his brother-in-law's disappearance and events culminate unexpectedly, Hank once again proves where he stands on this question.
Winters uses the police procedural aspect of the novel to drive forward the overall story arc and to develop a subtle, detailed and very effective pre-apocalyptic atmosphere. However besides the gripping pseudo-contemporary setting in this science fiction novel, it is Hank's character that makes the most impact, as it is through his first point of view perspective that the reader experiences the apathy, depression, desperation, resignation, and even false hope of those who surround him. Winters combines all those elements in The Last Policeman beautifully, and most importantly because this is the beginning of a trilogy, the story ends at the right moment. Personally, I can't wait to find out what happens to Hank next, or where Winters will take the story.
Category: Science Fiction/Mystery
Series: The Last Policeman Trilogy, Book 1
Publisher/Release Date: Quirk Books/July 10, 2012
Source: ARC Quirk Books
Visit Ben H. Winters here.
About the Author: Ben H. Winters has written plays and musicals for children and adults; all sorts of magazine and newspaper journalism; and six novels: Bedbugs, Android Karenina, the New York Times bestseller Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, the middle-grade novels The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman and The Mystery of the Everything, and the upcoming mystery The Last Policeman.