Owlcat’s CBR 5 review #12: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

I was unfamiliar with this author, Ben H. Winters, when I came across the title of this book and a synopsis that intrigued me.  I have always been fascinated by post apocalyptic stories but this one is pre-apocalyptic and I thought this would be an interesting and unique take on the world in general and the character in particular. The impending apocalypse is an asteroid that is due to strike earth, although initially people do not know exactly where, but wherever, it is going to change life on earth forever; the implication is that it will have the same effect on the human race as the asteroid that struck earth and destroyed the dinosaurs. I was also unaware when I began reading this book that it is the first in a trilogy, the second of which is not available until July (I have pre-ordered it), so be forewarned!

I enjoyed Winters’s relaxed style of writing that allows him to develop his characters and his plots (there are several) realistically but without a glibness that sometimes authors descend into.  He gives enough information about both to keep the reader interested and to relate to the main character so that we want him to succeed and want to follow him to wherever his leads take him.

The main character is Hank Palace, a young police detective in Concord, New Hampshire (which also appealed to me since the story takes place in New England).  Unlike a lot of people, he has not reacted pessimistically to the impending doom.  He has seen people react with suicide and with fulfilling their “bucket lists,” so many that bucket listing has become a verb.  Because of a shortage of employees everywhere as a result, life is already changing; one of those changes is that Hank has become a detective much sooner than he might have otherwise, and it’s something he always wanted to be so he is determined to do the best job he can, regardless of the circumstances.

His first case is a hanger;  Concord, in fact, has become known as a “hanger town,” where people commit suicide in great numbers rather than face the anticipated immediate death with the asteroid’s impact, or the aftermath that will likely lead to a long and lingering death if the impact is elsewhere on the globe.  The apparent hanger is Peter Zell, who seems to have hung himself from a towel bar in a McDonald’s, but when Hank is investigating the circumstances around his death, he first begins to suspect it’s more than the result of suicide, that it could be a murder. Others in his department think he’s overzealous and wonder what it matters anyway, given the world’s situation, but he is determined to ferret out the truth.  In doing so, he encounters apathy, lies, misdirections, and his own attempted murder (twice), although others think he is overreacting or misjudging and is maybe a little paranoid. Nevertheless, the mystery around Zell’s demise, and Hank’s determination to solve this case, continue throughout the book, culminating in a final analysis at the end of the book.

In the midst of all this, there is a subplot around his relationship with his sister and her unclear determination to reveal what might be government overt operations.  He has always been protective of her since they became orphans and she manipulates him into helping her without his realizing until it’s too late that he is part of her plot.  This story line, which is also more convoluted than the more simple suicide/murder case, remains unresolved at the end of the book, and I assume will be continued through the second and maybe the third books.

The asteroid also does not hit earth at the end of this book but the location of the impending impact has been revealed, that it will occur in Southeast Asia.  Peoples’ reactions to the impending catastrophe are varied, from resignation to sadness to fear. People are looking for ways to escape and trying to build rocket ships, and others are determined to do all sorts of things they never did because they were being “good” and living by the rules, and suddenly the rules are meaningless. Lawlessness begins to emerge with random shootings, some looting, but overall people are living their desperate lives in many ways as they always have and some are going a bit further, with charity and peace their goals.  The government seems to be attempting to remain in control and issuing mandates, some ignored, some applied.  The book clearly  asks questions of the reader:  What would your reaction be if you knew you and everyone around you had only six months to live? Would you take the noble route or the not-so-noble route?  Would you choose to stay at your job or do the bucket-list thing? Would you choose suicide or wait to see what is really going to happen?  What would affect your decisions, i.e., family members starving, being attacked, knowing there are those who are exploiting the situation and/or have found a way to circumvent it? Do we just keep on as if nothing is going to happen, because in the end, asteroid or not, don’t we all die anyway?  Lots of questions. There is a quote by Hank midway through the novel that says, “You can’t think too much about what happens next, you really can’t,” which I felt reflects his overall philosophy and could be applied to both an impending catastrophe or a normal lifespan.

This is a complex story, and the book ended with my definitely being frustrated, but in a good way.  The fact that Hank resolves the primary case that was introduced at the beginning of the book, with all of its twists and turns in plot and character, gave me the sense that story was wrapped up and that was satisfying. But there are the loose threads or two that remain, his sister’s story and the impact itself of the asteroid, that I assume will re-emerge in the sequels. I am very anxious to read the second book to see where it leads.