Premise: When asteroid 2011GV1 came into view, the likelihood of its impact with the Earth eventually grew to a certainty. From that point on, people reacted in different ways. Some cashed in their retirements and moved to exotic locations to spend the rest of their lives (six months) to the fullest or to indulge themselves into dangerous or illegal behavior, while some turned to God or sought other meaning. Others fell into despair and gave up, beating the asteroid to the punch by committing suicide. Concord, New Hampshire has become one of those places rife with suicides, and Peter Zell is just another on the list when he is found dangling from a belt in a McDonald’s bathroom. Hank Palace doesn’t think it’s a suicide. The real problem is no one else cares, including the cops he works with.
Due to a lack of personnel, Hank Palace has been put on the fast track from beat cop to detective. Since being a detective is always what he wanted to be, he takes his job seriously, even with the limited amount of time he has left to do it. He is about the only one who still wants to do his job, so he follows the Peter Zell trail to those who last knew of his whereabouts. As he pieces the clues together, he believes more and more this was a murder, even when the medical examiner also rules it a suicide.
In a world that is about to end, with people committing suicide left and right, why bother investigating it as a murder? Everyone is trying to cope in their own way, and maybe this is just Hank’s way of coping. Or maybe he just wants to do his job right. Whatever reasons he has for investigating the death or reasons someone would have to kill a man this close to the end, Hank Palace knows that even if he does find a killer, it might not even ultimately matter.
Themes: A mystery presents itself and new detective Hank Palace wants to take it seriously, even though no one else does. Seeking justice for a dead man doesn’t make sense when the world is probably coming to an end, but that is exactly what Hank plans on doing. Hank goes on a trail for clues to solve the mystery and digs up just what he needs piece by piece. He knows he must be on the right trail when his own life is threatened.
With the survival (or lack of survival) scenario, The Last Policeman presents a “how would you respond?” question to all readers. It gives a macro level look at the human race and the vast range of responses to such a scenario.
The Last Policeman also zooms in on what people are willing to do for their family, even in the worst circumstances, such as putting their jobs in danger, risking their own lives, or even committing crimes including murder. It looks at what people will do to help their family through tough times and also what people are willing to do to protect those they love.
Pros: The pacing of The Last Policeman was wonderful, plodding along in despair at times, and spinning out of control at others. I enjoyed the characters and the dialogue, especially in the face of the Earth’s demise. Clues are doled out right when they are needed with nothing wasted or overdone. The first person present tense punctuates the immediacy of the situation and the urgency of every moment. It poses valid questions with realistic answers under the worst of scenarios and exemplifies the vast array of human reactions to those circumstances. I think it is this display of humanity that had the most impact on me.
Cons: This was difficult for me since I liked The Last Policeman so much. Some readers might find the story somewhat depressing, though there are glimpses of hope throughout. There is some language and violence you will find in most cop novels. The story might start too slow for impatient readers who give up too easily and stop reading, but the reward is great for those who persevere in finishing.
Recommendations: The Last Policeman is one of those books that just grabbed me from the beginning and got better as it progressed. Everything about it seemed to work, from the dialogue to the gradual reveals in the mystery all the way to the foreshadowed revelations when Hank finally solves the mystery. Ben H. Winters has set out a police mystery in an apocalyptic setting that manages to display optimism under gloomy circumstances. As a mystery, cop drama, or as a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, The Last Policeman has something to offer for everyone. With its exploration of human nature, The Last Policeman poses thoughtful questions everyone should ask themselves. Plus it’s just plain good writing. It’s also the first in a trilogy, for which I am not angry.