So I’m lying in my bed and I’m staring at the ceiling with my fists clenching and unclenching at my sides, and then I get up and open the blinds, and I look out the window, into the cloud-fogged blackness, past the handful of visible stars.
“You know what you can do?” I say softly, raising one finger and pointing it at the sky. “You can go fuck yourself.”
Detective Hank Palace isn’t flipping off God—he’s giving the bird to 2011GV1, also known as Maia, a 7km asteroid. On October 3, or in exactly 6 months and 11 days, the world will end in a flourish of carbon and silicates, when Maia smashes into the Earth. With that kind of certainty looming overhead, what would you do? Would you continue to go to work each day, or try to cross off all of those items on your bucket list? Would you deny the math and science, convinced that it is all a colossal lie, a miscalculation? Or would you fall into despair and take your own life?
On dreary day in March, an actuary is discovered hanged in a McDonalds bathroom. The death is called into the police, with all the expectations of it being a cut-and-dry case, since when life as we know it comes to an end, and people are hanging themselves left and right (Concord, New Hampshire isn’t called “Hanger Town” for nothing), who’s really going to care enough to investigate another suicide?
Enter Detective Hank Palace, a young man who may just have been built for the apocalypse. He goes to work every day, even when every other police officer has checked out either mentally or physically. After receiving an unprecedented promotion from patrol cop to homicide detective (hey, policemen are hard to find when the world is ending), Palace takes his job seriously. And he can’t shake the gut feeling that this actuary Peter Anthony Zell’s death is something more than a simple suicide. Palace’s investigation takes him deep into the strange, quiet life of Peter Zell—all the while, the clock is ticking down towards humanity’s unavoidable demise.
The winner of the 2013 Edgar Award (best paperback original), The Last Policeman is a strange, beautiful novel. It’s a literary speculative fiction novel, a police procedural, and a pre-apocalyptic fable about a dedicated, young detective looking to prove himself before the world ends. And, frankly, it rocks. These days, apocalypse novels (and films) are a dime a dozen—these disaster stories are invariably about the big bang at end of the world—either it’s all about the violent apocalypse, or the chaos and societal collapse that immediately follows. Whether it’s zombies or an asteroid or an alien invasion, it’s all about the climactic action and disaster.
The Last Policeman is not that book. It’s the pregnant pause, the tension that crackles before the inevitable hookup (to channel How I Met Your Mother, it’s the drumroll before the kiss). And, it turns out, that is all kinds of fascinating. In other words: I loved this book.
This is the second book I’ve read by Ben Winters (creepy but forgettable horror novel Bedbugs being the first), and I’m incredibly impressed by the nuanced writing, plotting and especially the characters in The Last Policeman versus that book. Hank Palace is a noir-gumshoe-hero looking for meaning in a gradually dying world—a man with a compelling blend of naiveté and overeagerness, a dreamer, and a guy who has been dying to become a cop for his entire life (it just took the world to end for him to get his dream job, and his dream case). There are lying dames with guarded secrets, fraud on an impressive scale and, of course, a classic whodunit murder.
Oh yeah, there’s also the big chunk of ice and rock hurtling towards the planet (complete with believable and accurate science), so there’s this pervasive sense of impotence and dread throughout the book. But Palace’s boy scout–like desire to do right is contagious, and ultimately it is that feeling of hope that carries the book from good to great. I started this book because of the recent release of Countdown City (book 2 in the trilogy), and now I cannot wait to jump back in.
In fact, I will be jumping back in with a review of Countdown City here at Kirkus on August 30.
In Book Smugglerish, a quietly satisfying 8 out of 10.