Premise: It is now seventy-seven days until an asteroid will collide with Earth, and society has continued to break down. Hank Palace is no longer a detective, now that the U.S. Department of Justice police state has been put into place anticipating the coming apocalypse. People continue to die or go missing, but for some strange reason Hank has agreed to go in search of Brett Cavatone, the husband of Hank’s old babysitter. Brett has disappeared and there is no way of knowing where he is. There are still people leaving behind everything they have in order to spend their last days however they want, and there are also those who want to see the end on their own terms.
With the aid of Nico, his sister, and his police friends still on the force, along with the unlikeliest of helpers, Hank learns where Brett might have gone, but it still doesn’t mean he is alive. Even if he is, does Brett want to go back? And as the impact date approaches, Hank learns of a plot to potentially change the outcome of the world. But there are those who would have it another way.
Themes: In a world facing the end of existence, Countdown City takes a sweeping look at how people respond to disaster, but in the context of living in a world with other people. It zooms in on various reactions to the circumstances as humanity copes with impending doom. Most importantly, it posits revealing shades of how people treat each other, especially in times of crisis.
Even though he is no longer a cop, Hank Palace continues to do what he knows when he agrees to attempt solving a mystery. He has no obligation to anyone at this point, yet he still is willing to use his last days risking his life and helping out someone from his past. If anything, it helps him keep his own identity and humanity as he does what he can to help others keep a shred of their own.
Pros: The outstanding part of Countdown City is the question it asks about human nature and how we treat each other. Hank Palace is a good guy in the truest sense of the word, while some of the characters he runs across are less than reputable, including some of those that help him. But even though Hank is a white hat in a world of black hats, he still flawed and makes mistakes that threaten his own life. I felt even more immediacy in this story than the first book, especially as the drop dead date approaches and society continues to crumble exponentially. Ben H. Winters again masterfully pieces together a mystery that leaves you guessing until the end.
Cons: Again, as in The Last Policeman, there is little to look forward to in the long term for these characters, as the end is nigh for all of them. As such, Countdown City contains plenty of language, violence, sex and drug use in a world left with no rules. When there are murmurs about how the crisis might be averted, I was reminded of cheesy Hollywood movies about asteroids heading toward Earth.
Recommendations: Countdown City does exactly what the first book did, giving us a spectrum of visceral human reactions to the end of existence. The majority of people act with haste and selfishness by going “bucket list” and doing whatever they want regardless of any potential repercussions, while some few continue to do what they always have: serving coffee at the cafe, keeping the peace, or, in Hank Palace’s case, solving mysteries. Search yourself as you encounter the different characters to see how you might react under the circumstance. Start the series with The Last Policeman, but don’t stop there. See the end of the world out to the end by continuing with Countdown City. The end could come quickly, or there might be more to come.