What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die?
That’s the question posed by Ben H. Winters’ new book The Last Policeman (Quirk Books, $14.95). Released this week, the novel drops the crime thriller into a post-apocalyptic scenario. The set-up: In six months, an asteroid called 2011GV1 will collide with planet Earth. In a city full of suicides, one detective named Hank Palace is the only one who cares to investigate a suspicious death — one that doesn’t feel like a suicide.
Like the fictitious asteroid that’s careening toward earth on a collision course, Winters also aims to smash conventions with this fast-paced, wry take on the hardboiled detective genre. The Last Policeman is, as Winters says, “an existential detective novel.” The book is also intended to be the first in a series.
Ben H. Winters is the author of six novels, including the New York Times bestseller Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, the Edgar-award nominated YA novel The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, and the supernatural thriller Bedbugs, which has been optioned for the big screen by Tango Pictures. Visit him at www.BenHWinters.com.
I had a chance to ask Ben some questions about The Last Policeman, how he researched it, and whether he worries the science geeks will bust him for any errors about asteroids slamming into earth.
Gilsdorf: Your books have taken on a variety of tones and genres. Bedbugs mixes horror with the domestic. Android Karenina mashes up steampunk with Russian literature. In Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, you take Jane Austen’s novel and throw in some giant lobsters, octopi, and sea serpents. Then you have a very quiet alter-ego as a children’s author; you wrote the middle grade reader The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman. So why did you write this book?
Winters: Oh, well, you know, why does anyone do anything? (Hey, what do you know? That’s the theme of the book!)
I love the classic detective-story model, and have long been interested in the challenge of building a good one. The great books of that genre have some levels to them, some resonances beyond the X to Y to Z of clue tracking. At some point it occurred to me to give my hero the challenge of solving his case in the midst of some earth-shaking calamity, and from there it was a short trip to the end of the world.
Gilsdorf: How do you make an end-of-days armageddon scenario feel fresh? Just taking the movies Deep Impact and Armageddon, it’s a genre that’s been pretty well traveled. I assume adding in a noir-ish potboiler procedural detective premise was part of the plan to make this new?
Winters: That detective angle is definitely part of it; my goal is that The Last Policeman is successful as a mystery qua mystery, even if you take the whole asteroid-coming business out of it. But hopefully what makes it fresh, even more so, is the level of detail, realistic detail, about what things would really be like, or might conceivably be like, in these terrible final months. I put in a lot of hours on the phone talking to economists, to scientists, to technologists, to create my model of a world on the brink. Just for starters, you’re talking about a worldwide financial panic; you’re talking about a crisis of law and order; you’re talking about a lot of wildness and brutality, but also a lot of good Samaritanship.
Gilsdorf: You’ve probably heard about this new movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. What’s with the recurring popularity of the armageddon plot?
Winters: I would say that Steve Carell and I are swimming in the zeitgeist together, but this has been a popular theme from the Book of Revelations right up to Y2K and beyond. Our attraction to this particular theme has got to reflect some fundamental recognition of life’s fragility, right? Because, no, the universe will probably not end tomorrow, or next week, but for any of us it could end at any minute, with a faulty brake line or a bad fall or whatever. In a book like The Last Policeman, I’m just taking the basic brutal fact of life (it will end one day) and sharpening it a bit (life will end on this particular day) and teasing out the implications. It’s an existential detective novel, as I presume Seeking a Friend is an existential romantic comedy.
Gilsdorf: You could have chosen to set your novel in any state and selected New Hampshire (which, by the way, is my home state). Why the Granite State? Is there something especially post-apocalyptic about N.H.?
Winters: My initial connection to New Hampshire is familial — my older brother has lived and worked there for years now. I was originally planning to set this book in Brooklyn, the city I know the best, but something about a New York City crime novel seemed wrong for this idea. I wanted my hero to be a dedicated small-town cop, but for his small town to be nevertheless big enough that I could explore some of the societal (as opposed to purely personal) ramifications of impending doom. Concord’s population is well under 100,000, but it still houses the state government, it still has a decent-sized downtown, it still has a spread of neighborhoods and industries and economic classes. Just felt perfect.
Gilsdorf: How do you make your book intersect with the real-world — in this case, the region around Concord, N.H.? You were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time, so did you take lots of trips up there to make sure your streets and descriptions correspond to the real world?
Winters: Yeah, I logged a lot of miles driving back and forth, running up my EZPass bill. It was important to me that this not be a Concord of my imagination, first of all because I love road-map novels, books where you feel like you could read it and know your way around the world where it’s set. And just because the big idea of The Last Policeman alters the real world so drastically, it seemed more interesting to start off with a real place and start to fray it around the edges, rather than starting with a made-up American city. I think I got things mostly right, although I do mention a dive bar called The Green Martini, which has apparently burned down. RIP.
Gilsdorf: Tell me about your decision to tell the story from the first person, and using present tense.
Winters: I had written great swaths of this novel with a traditional past-tense, third-person narrator (“Hank Palace stood on the toilet tank and looked into the dead eyes of the insurance man,” was the opening sentence for many drafts), and it never felt right. What I realized is that when you’re writing a series that builds up to most of mankind being destroyed, the whole convention, the literariness of the past tense becomes really glaring. I kept wondering, who is telling this story? And when? So anyway, it took me a lot longer to figure this out than it should have, and I made this huge decision to put the whole thing in Hank’s POV (which then yielded the fringe benefit of heightening the suspense quality, since we can only know what he knows), and p.s. an hour after I made this decision and called the publisher to ask for more time, my wife went into labor and our new daughter was born. So I took some time off, and when I came back I was all ready to get inside my detective’s head and that was that.
Gilsdorf: Were you careful to make the asteroid collision scenario plausible and how do you research that?
Winters: By this great gift of the gods of fiction, I set out to write this novel while we were living in Cambridge, home of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the director of its Minor Planet Center, Dr. Timothy Spahr, who is so much an expert on asteroids that there is an asteroid named after him. Dr. Spahr was incredibly generous with his time, and I will never forget the moment, after I described what I wanted to happen, I asked whether it was possible, and he said, “Oh, sure. I can get you your asteroid.”
Gilsdorf: Do you fear the science and astro-physicist geeks who might bust you for getting some of the details wrong?
Winters: I already irritated at least one, and he’s a biggie: Randy Schweickart, a former NASA astronaut and the Chair Emeritus of the B612 Foundation. When I called him to ask questions about asteroids, and explained my plot, he said that I was doing the world a disservice by warning of an extremely unlikely event (a massive, civilization-ending asteroid) instead of the still-unlikely-but-a-lot-more-likely danger of a big but sub-catastrophic asteroid. Anyway, I apologized to him in the acknowledgments, and I apologize again now, and direct everyone to check out (and contribute) to his important work, at B612foundation.org.
Gilsdorf: San Diego Comic-Con is this week. Obviously, everything related to superheroes, science fiction and fantasy is huge these days. Any thoughts on the geeking/genre-fixation/genre-fication of American pop culture?
Winters: This is not a blazingly original opinion, but the best books (or films or shows) in any genre transcend their genre and reach out to readers (or viewers) of all stripes. Harry Potter did not sell sixteen trillion copies because everyone in the world was secretly obsessed with wizardry, but because it had universal elements that appealed to lots of different folks. Fifty Shades of Gray has not sold sixteen trillion copies because people are secretly obsessed with kinky sex. Oh, wait, sure they are.
Gilsdorf: You just moved to Indianapolis. Will we be seeing you at Gen Con anytime soon?
Winters: As of now, you will see me at Einstein’s Bagels on Broad Ripple Avenue, trying to hash out the plot to the Policeman sequel.
Read more about Ben H. Winters and The Last Policeman at www.BenHWinters.com.