The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman
Quirk Books/July 10th, 2012

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 Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. 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.

The first in a trilogy, The Last Policeman offers a mystery set on the brink of an apocalypse. 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?

In six months, earth is going to be hit with an asteroid, estimated to destroy over half of the population of Earth, and Detective Hank Palace thinks he’s probably the only cop left that cares anything about solving cases. Concord, New Hampshire has come to be called “Hanger Town” in reference to the overwhelming suicide of choice of its citizens. When he’s called to the scene of a man that has supposedly hung himself in a McDonald’s bathroom, something just doesn’t look right, and Hank Palace is determined to get to the bottom of it. They’re still not sure where the asteroid will land, but justice must still be served, right?

End of the world scenarios in fiction aren’t hard to come by recently, but out of all of them, the asteroid/meteor/large thing falling out of the sky is one that fascinates me more than others. I imagine getting the news that in a year, or maybe six months, something big is gonna hit, and I’m in the blast zone. Would I go on with life as usual, or would I throw caution to the wind and live out the rest of the days like there’s no tomorrow (which may or may not be true)? Hank Palace is one of the ones who decide to go on as usual, doing his job, and doing it to the best of his ability. All Hank ever wanted to be is a cop, and he pursues this case with a single minded doggedness that is almost unheard of in these strange new times of self-indulgence and wild abandon. He does his job in spite of the quiet snickers and not so subtle ribbing from his colleagues, as things begin to crumble around him. The story is told by Hank, and we follow him as he navigates the trail of the victim, a quiet, socially awkward insurance man. As Hank puts together the clues, following strict procedure, he stumbles onto something much more than a mere hanging, and the body count begins to rise.

The Last Policeman is much more than a police procedural or a pre-apocalyptic scenario. It’s a study of a man determined to do the right thing as society crumbles and hope begins to crumble with it. Hank reminded me a bit of Marge Gunderson, the indomitable police chief in Fargo, and as the case unfolds, so does Hank, and so do the little ins and outs of Concord and its inhabitants. Things in this book are so subtle and understated that the bits of violence can be jarring, even though the violence is never over the top. I think Hank was as surprised about it as I was, yet he perseveres with dignity, and even a bit of off kilter grace. I suspect part of what drives Hank in his investigation is that he sees a bit of himself in the victim, and following through is really the only choice he has. Ben Winters’ writing is nuanced, lovely, sometimes poignant, and a pure pleasure to read. I hope that The Last Policeman gets the attention that it deserves, because it’s a hell of a book and about as close to perfect as it gets for me. I hear that it will be a trilogy, and I can’t wait for the next one!