The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
Quirk Books, 2012
Price I paid: none
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?
Okay, I’m breaking ranks again this week because I was on vacation and I wanted to cap it off with something I thought that I’d really enjoy. I meant to just, well, read this book at some point, but somewhere along the way I decided that it would make for an interesting review, as well as kill two birds with one stone. Yeah, I’m lazy. I’m totes cool with that.
Usually my reviews are unapologetically spoileriffic. I never actually state that, you may have noticed, but that’s because I’m usually dealing with works that are fifty-odd years old and there was a good chance nobody would care to read them anyway. This week I’m shakin’ that up, too. I figure the book is still new enough that I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you, but moreover, it’s a mystery, so it would be double-dickish to ruin the ending.
I’ve been meaning to read a mystery for a while, and I’m glad that I found one with enough of a sci-fi twist in it to justify. Not that I need a sci-fi twist to review different genres, but it’s nice when I can get it.
I think I’ve mentioned before how I think mixing mystery with the more out-there genres is a recipe for failure. A mystery requires that we’re able to guess what’s going on, and having it firmly rooted in reality is necessary to that. If it turns out that the motive is wizardry or the murder weapon was a zero-point energy blaster that doesn’t require the perp to be anywhere near the victim and leaves no trace, it leaves something to be desired. This is especially true if, for some reason or another, the world in which this mystery is set isn’t sufficiently fleshed out to make us realize that these are options. It’s this last complaint that, when avoided, can make for some great mysteries set in science fiction or fantasy worlds. I think the Harry Potter books work quite well as mysteries in a lot of ways, for example.
And then we have The Last Policeman, a book that manages to toe that line to a fantastic degree. At its heart, it’s a book about people under pressure in unusual circumstances. The results of those circumstances are sometimes different from what we’d expect, but they all make sense when explored.
The circumstances I’m alluding to are the fact that the world is about to end. An enormous asteroid is going to collide with the earth. 100% chance of impact. There’s even a firm date: October 3. We don’t get a year, and one’s not really necessary, but it’s definitely the present or Next Sunday, A.D. When the book starts, October 3 is about six months away.
People are freaking out, as you might imagine. People are leaving their jobs, finding religion, doing crazy things, and committing suicide left and right. The book has been described as an existentialist mystery, and that’s accurate. What’s the point of doing, well, anything? Why bother solving a murder if the perp, and everyone else in the world, is going to be dead in half a year anyway?
Our protagonist, Hank Palace, is just trying to do his job. He does it because, well, it’s his job. He always wanted to be a detective when he was growing up, and now he is one, so he’s gonna go some goddamn detective stuff!
Hank’s not a hardboiled sort of detective, though. He’s a really good character, especially for this kind of narrative. He’s sensitive, vulnerable, and at times in way over his head. Mike Hammer he ain’t. He’s a character worth caring about, and that makes us care about what he’s trying to accomplish. It also makes us care that nothing he does will matter after six months, no matter how much we want him to win.
The setup is thus: Hank gets called in to the scene of an apparent suicide. Seeing as how suicides are quite common these days, there shouldn’t be anything more to his job than checking a few boxes on a form and moving on to the next scene. But something just doesn’t feel right. The victim, Peter Zell, is a small, bookish man who was previously quite content to work as an insurance guy, doing spreadsheets and calculating odds. Hank’s investigation leads us deep into Zell’s mind, exploring him and trying to figure out why he might have been murdered.
The setting does mix things up a bit, leading to some interesting red herrings. For starters, Zell’s phone is missing from the crime scene. At first this is something of a big deal. Somebody stole his phone! But wait, in the current situation, cellular coverage is getting increasingly spotty. Nobody is repairing the towers, cell providers are shutting down, and what remaining networks there are are overloaded. So it’s entirely possible that Zell just didn’t have a phone.
Is a reverse red herring still just a red herring? Minor spoiler: it turns out that the phone is important.
Another feature of the scene is that Zell apparently hanged himself with his belt…except the belt he used is a very nice one, well above anything else Zell would have had in his closet. It’s much nicer than the belt that he was wearing around his waist at the time he died.
And so it’s these little clues and a heaping spoonful of intuition that leads Hank to investigate what he believes to be a murder.
I think what I liked best about this book is something I’ve actually seen some other reviews complain about. See, the mystery was just that, a mystery. It didn’t have much else going on. It was a simple murder, and there’s a detective who wants to solve it. What sets the story apart is that the murder took place in the setting it did. Everything surrounding the murder is the part that really grabs our attention. It practically left me begging for Hank to stop talking about the dead guy and actually tell us about stuff like the collapse of society.
Something that puts everything in perspective: Stuff has gotten so bad that McDonald’s went bankrupt.
But the mystery works because it’s also tied inextricably to the setting. Few other people believe that Zell’s death was anything other than a suicide. Suicides are common now, and hanging suicides are the current vogue in this part of the country (small-town New Hampshire).
Note that Zell didn’t so much hang himself as wrap his belt around the railing in a handicapped stall, put it around his neck, and lean forward…or so we’re led to believe.
There’s another element to the story, a B-plot, that I didn’t care about as much. It deals with Hank’s sister, Nico, who is young and impulsive. She got married to some dopey guy on the day the asteroid was discovered to have a 100% impact chance. At the start of the book, that dopey guy has gone missing, and so Nico drags her brother into the investigation. Things start to get a little conspiracy-ish around this side of the plot, and I wasn’t super thrilled with it. Don’t get me wrong: it was fine on its own, but compared to the rest of the book, it wasn’t the best.
What did work best, the thing I liked most about the book, was how it was a journey into the mind of a person. That person isn’t Hank―although we learn a lot about him, too―it’s Zell. This is my favorite kind of mystery, the kind where the detective tries to figure out what’s going on by getting into the mind of the victim and turning that character into a sympathetic figure that we’re sad is dead, making us want the mystery solved as much as the detective does. As the investigation progresses, we grow to like Peter Zell and think he didn’t deserve what happened to him. Even when it turns out that there’s a bit of darkness lurking in this likable dead guy, we’re still sympathetic to him. We get why he did the things he did.
Hank is a good character too. Don’t get me wrong. In fact, there weren’t very many characters in the book that I didn’t like. I mean, there were characters that were bad people―it’s a murder mystery―but they didn’t think they were bad people. Through Harry’s trained eye and the author’s excellent writing, we see everybody as someone trying their level best to survive in a world gone mad, even if that means doing some really terrible things.
There are two more books in this series, and to say that I’m going to read them would be an understatement. I probably won’t review them, but there’s a damn good chance that after I hit PUBLISH on this review I’m going to visit the library for book two. It’s that good.
When I say “visit the library,” I actually mean hit up my Overdrive account. Other libraries may use other things, but in case you’re not aware of it, lots of major library systems have free eBook and downloadable audiobook collections that are well worth your time. That’s how I got this one, and probably how I’m going to read the remaining books.
Call your local library to find out how to access the electronic collection! You won’t regret it!
In the end, I’m gonna say this was a majorly entertaining book and I liked it a lot. Did it change my life, make me see the world in a whole new way, stuff like that? Nah. That’s not what it’s for. This ain’t deep literature, it’s a murder mystery. But it’s damn fine.
But still, it’s the sort of book that really gets you thinking about how you’d respond if you found out―you KNEW―that you, and everyone you love, hate, and don’t particularly care about, would be dead soon. It’s hard to imagine wanting to spend that time solving a mystery, but Ben Winters sells us on that idea.
A peak behind the curtain: I spent most of Friday reading this book straight through. It’s fairly longish, about 300 pages, but I didn’t care. I was immersed. No naps. I got so deep into it that at one point I had to take a break and find a snack. I fired up the old Facebook while I ate and started getting increasingly annoyed with everyone…
Why are all these people talking about all this mundane shit when the WORLD IS ENDING?
Yeah, that’s how deep I got into this book. I had book hangover.
So give it a shot! I liked it, and I hope you do, too.