If the world were going to end in six months, how would you react?
Would you start crossing items off your bucket list? Or would you try and connect with a higher power? Or would you continue on in your chosen career, finally able to move up because a lot of other people had taken the first two options?
Detective Hank Palace is taking that third option, finally getting ahead in his police career because everyone else above him took another path. He’s a detective by default and while he’s good at his job, there’s not really a lot of pressure to solve many cases. For many, being caught and locked up for a crime is a death sentence since, again, the world is going to end in six months when the Earth collides with a giant asteroid.
The sense of impending doom has also led a lot of people to take an early exit on this life. When Hank is called in on an apparent suicide, he begins to suspect the set-up may look too much like a suicide and may actually be a cover-up for murder.
Ben H. Winter’s The Last Policeman is a fascinating combination of a gritty, noir mystery and an end-of-the-world sci-fi thriller. Winter drops us into the world of Hank Palace and allows us to live in it along with him — seeing a variety of responses to the end of the world coming and there being little, if anything, that can be done to stop it. (There’s no Bruce Willis here to jump on a shuttle and take out the asteroid before it collides).
It’s the world-building that sets the first two-thirds of this novel apart from other noir mystery novels. But it’s the last third that offers up clues as to something more going on and also that drag down the novel a bit. The central mystery works well enough and is nicely resolved, but there’s something in the novel’s final third that seems a bit off from what we’ve read until then. And while I understand that we can’t exactly root for a last-second miracle and that the world-view of this novel is a bleak one, I still felt something was missing from the last third of the novel that kept a good book from being a great one.
Interestingly, my local community has chosen this novel as it’s “community read” for 2014. Certainly some of the ideas and questions raised by the novel — just how would you deal with the end of the world coming? — are intriguing ones. One idea that Winters puts forward is how everyday things would shut down or quickly become a luxury or a memory. For example, McDonald’s are shut down but there are local squatters who take over the local franchise and keep things going even if you’re not technically eating the famous fries and a Big Mac. There’s also the question of quantities of certain items slowly beginning to dwindle down as the supply chain is interrupted or else suspended entirely.
All of these are interesting issues and ideas. And yet it never feels like Winters is bringing the central mystery to a halt to have Palace spend a paragraph or two thinking back to the good ol’ days.
And while I wasn’t a huge fan of how it ended, I was still intrigued enough by Palace and his world to want to pick up the next installment in this proposed trilogy and see what happens next.