If a world-ending asteroid were on a collision course with Earth, would you spend the last six months on the job? That’s the question asked by author Ben H. Winters in his novel, The Last Policeman. Henry Palace, a mid-twenties beat cop has just been promoted to detective — there’s not a lot of detectives sticking around these days, and those not heading out to fulfill their personal bucket lists find their daily duties involving more and more suicide investigations. The federal government has passed extreme legislation, bordering on martial law in some instances, that give police a lot of extra authority as well as the ability to speed through suicide investigations with less than the usual level of investigation.
When the story begins, Henry is investigating a hanger… yet another suicide by hanging. But Henry’s got a background that has instilled in him a strong sense of pride and responsibility in his job. He just refuses to cut corners in his work, and his fellow detectives still manage to find humor in the young guy’s commitment to his cases. Henry still shows up in suit and tie. He follows up every lead. And he knows that humans are still capable of murder, even when asteroid 2011GV1 is pretty much guaranteeing extinction for all of mankind.
This hanger that Henry’s investigating… it all looks like a typical suicide. But the novel wouldn’t be much of a crime story if there weren’t a crime, right? While all the other detectives are telling him to close the case, Henry’s instincts and observations are pointing in another direction, and the majority of the tale follows Henry as he begins to unravel the true crime that’s been committed.
During the investigation, we learn quite a bit about Henry. He’s got a sister, Nico, who has her own end-of-the-world problems with her new husband who’s gone missing, and she manages to drag Henry into the trouble. Henry’s also being forced to examine his own feelings on what it means to be facing a scheduled death sentence. He’s curious about what drives other people to take their own lives rather than continue living to the last absolute moment. And, just to prove that you never quite know when someone interesting might walk into your life, Henry’s met someone during the course of his investigation.
As Henry tries his best to live his life, deal with family and work issues, and perform his job to the best of his abilities, he meets resistance on every corner. With the end of the world looming, someone is determined to undermine the investigation, leaving Henry as the last man in his department to actually be interested in solving a crime.
The Last Policeman is not a science fiction tale. Let’s just get that out on the table. This is a crime story. Winters has done his homework, with a story full of procedures and methodologies that are demonstrated rather than explained. I enjoyed that… a lot. Asteroid 2011GV1 is on its way, and the world is full of sadness as well as shocking actions by individuals and groups, but Henry is all about the case at hand, and you get a front-row seat on the investigation.You will learn about the discovery of the asteroid, it’s early effects on the world’s population as the calculations are performed and the odds of impact get progressively worse for mankind. You will discover the many ways that humans react to the worst news ever, and be forced yourself to think about this situation and how you might react to it.
For me, it was an entertaining and well-plotted tale. And it was disturbing. As a father of two boys, I found myself wondering how I would react to this kind of news… how I would attempt to make sense of it. What would I do to maintain a semblance of normalcy for my family? How far would I go to protect my family? Would I be willing to show up, day after day, at a job that had a non-negotiable retirement date? These and many more questions… all from a fictional story about a detective who chooses to control and maintain his life (as best he can) in the absolute direst of days.
The Last Policeman is the first book in a trilogy; I’m already wondering how the author will wrap it all up, and based on the events in the first book, I’m not putting a lot of money on a happy ending. And maybe that’s why Henry and his case feel so important. Because it’s not going to end well. For Henry. Or for any of us. And all we can do is root for Henry to deliver justice while there’s still time to appreciate it. Even at the end of the world, there’s still something to be said for putting our best foot forward, doing the right thing, and hoping there are others out there like Henry who will keep the gears turning until the very last moment.
You can read an interview with Ben H. Winters from an earlier post on The Last Policeman conducted by fellow GeekDad contributor Ethan Gilsdorf here.
Note: I’d like to thank Nicole at Quirk Books for providing a copy of the book for this review.