I turn off the scanner. Houdini is still looking at me, sad eyed and earnest, so I sigh and pour out a quarter cup of dry kibble, exactly what I had hoped to avoid by bringing home the table scraps. There is now just a single serving left in this bag, and after this one I have sixteen bags with ten servings per bag. Houdini eats approximately two servings a day, so we should be just about okay for the seventy-seven days remaining. But who's counting?
I stand up and stretch and fill his water bowl. That's one of the big jokes: Who's counting? The answer, of course, is everyone - everyone is counting.
It is 77 days before the world as we know it comes to an end.
77 days before 2011GV1, the 7km-long asteroid more commonly known as Maia, smashes into the surface of the big blue world, bringing with it the certain mass extinction of the human race.
Just before the end of the world, Hank Palace finds himself out of a job—there are no more policeman and no more detectives. Things are unraveling quickly now; the police department in Concord has been all but disbanded, taken over by mysterious men in black who are more concerned with food shipments than crime. Instead of keeping the peace or solving crimes, the police’s role has turned to keeping as many people alive as possible...for 77 days, that is.
Former Detective Hank Palace is resigned (if not exactly content) to spend the rest of his days quietly with his dog Houdini, until a face from his past begs him for help. Martha Milano, the girl who used to babysit Henry and his sister Nico as children, implores Henry to find her missing husband, Brett. Convinced that Brett did not go “bucket list” (and does not have a mistress), Martha loves her husband and desperately believes that he's gone to do some noble, good deed. But she needs him home with her, especially as the end draws nigh. Palace, who always did have a soft spot for the dames, and for Martha, agrees to the case—a journey that will cause him to encounter some very harsh truths about his pre-apocalyptic world.
The second book in a planned trilogy and sequel to Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman, Countdown City has a tough act to follow—certainly, I was excited for this second installment after recently reading and reviewing the first book here at Kirkus. Middle stories in trilogies are tough creatures; they have the potential to be utterly fantastic (à la The Two Towers, The Ask and the Answer), but more often than not, the middle installment is boring placeholder text, the victim of its bookending siblings (see Insurgent by Veronica Roth, The Twelve by Justin Cronin). In the case of Countdown City, Winters hits some undeniable high notes…but the book isn't nearly as compelling or well-rounded as its predecessor.
On the positive end of the spectrum, the atmosphere and depiction of society's rapid and near-complete collapse is beautifully detailed in all of its terrible glory. Winters shows us a much larger picture of society in Countdown City, giving readers a cold, hard look at the world beyond the insulated town of Concord, New Hampshire: the paranoid conspiracy theory networks, the religious zealots, the hedonistic college students that have taken over a college campus (conjuring at least in my mind an adult, gated version of the lost boys in Neverland). The title, Countdown City, is a perfect description of the book’s atmosphere; the clock is winding down, and everyone is counting. (Note that this is from someone who preferred the art and initial sound of “Disasterland”—a previous working, but then discarded, title).
If the first book was a depiction of frustration and impotence in the face of impending death—threaded through with Hank's stubborn desire to do the right thing, even when no one else cares—this second book is characterized by desperate rage and tension. There’s a particularly memorable scene in which Henry reflects on two female neighbors who moved in together after their husbands “went bucket list." The pair's home was broken into, the women violently raped and beaten nearly to death by masked men for no reason other than desperate, fucked-up anger. When Hank reports the crime to the police, he’s met with blank stares—since what, really, can anyone do? This is the kind of shitty, messed up world of Countdown City, just a little over 2 months before the world ends. (And that's to say nothing of the looting and con-jobs, the sad fate of third-world immigrants as they brave the water…you get the picture. Hank's world is not a happy place.)
While setting and style is up to the standard set in The Last Policeman, the characters, mystery and plot elements are not. Countdown City falls short of its predecessor because, frankly, the story isn't as interesting. The mystery of Martha's missing husband is more of a distraction then a fully fleshed-out whodunit, and Henry's journey to find Brett is episodic with some disturbing reliance on convenient revelations and twists to literally airlift Henry out of trouble.
The characters, Hank included, are of the nondescript stock variety; instead of seeing these characters change, their interactions grow or shift, we're entreated to more of the same. Henry's strong internal voice and narrative from The Last Policeman is sadly missing the same emotional gravitas in this second book; his interactions with kinda-sorta estranged sister Nico as they team up to work on the case together are disappointingly superficial. We see a few familiar faces from the first book, but these are face value interactions, each character defined by quick sketches: Tough female mom cop MocConnell is gruff and motherly, jokester Detective McGully makes vaudevillian jokes, etc.
Ultimately, while Countdown City isn't as successful or polished a book as The Last Policeman, I still enjoyed the book and am eager to see how Winters will end this trilogy. (And it better be with a blaze of glory, because if that asteroid doesn't crash into the planet, I'm going to be one very angry reader.)
In Book Smugglerish, an entertained but less-satisfied 6 (kilometers of space rock) out of 10.