The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

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The Last Policeman Ben H WintersThe Last Policeman by Ben Winters is a combination of noir detective fiction and apocalyptic science fiction. It is also excellent.

The world is coming to an end in six months. An asteroid is on course for the planet; it will strike; large areas will be destroyed and life, if any, afterward will be miserable. In the middle of the collapse caused by this knowledge, Detective Hank Palace is called in to investigate an apparent death by hanging. Everyone expects him to call it a suicide and leave. He suspects murder and proceeds to investigate. Under the circumstances, most people wonder why he is bothering. What is one more death and why does it matter how it happened?

Noir detectives generally hew to their own code. Here, the twist is that Hank Palace’s code is the one most people now would recognize as the good, upright, and legal code. It is a singular code in a world that is disintegrating. Winters doesn’t shy from suggesting that perhaps Palace is wrong—or at least partly wrong—in some of his decisions, or that there may be no right decisions in this situation. He remains a strong and engaging character whose struggles are understandable.

Winters also chronicles the slow decline of culture as more and more people leave their jobs to do whatever it is they’ve always wanted (“going Bucket List”), commit suicide, or just give up. Specific details and descriptions chronicle the slide while also giving odd glimpses of the people who, like Hank, try to hold on to the established norms or, like Hank’s sister, Nico, struggle to find or build a hope for survival (something Hank dismisses out of hand). For example, on walking into a hospital, Hank notes that “There’s a bank of spherical lights over the main doors, and all were lit the last time I was here, and now two are out, and that’s just it. The world is decaying bit by bit, every piece degrading at its own erratic rate…and each minor degradation has its consequences.”

There is a reason The Last Policeman won the Edgar award. It is a strong mystery, and Winters plays fair. The readers have all the clues and red herrings just as Hank Palace does, and the resolution is satisfying and convincing. There’s also a second, longer mystery not solved by the end: What are Nico and her friends doing? Hank dismisses them. Should we? It is also a strong, unusual setting, and a satisfying, if unsettling, story of how people act and interact and what happens when things fall apart.

With the third book in the trilogy coming out in July, now is a good time to start this series, if you haven’t already.

Publication Information
Published January 1st 2012 by Quirk Books
ISBN 1594745765 (ISBN13: 9781594745768)

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