The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

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15773662

Series: The Last Policeman #1

Kindle Edition, 322 pages

Published: July 10, 2012 by Quirk Books

Setting: Concord, New Hampshire

Literary Awards: Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original

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The end of the world changes everything, from a law-enforcement perspective.

Henry Palace has achieved his dream of becoming a police investigator much more quickly than he’d expected. Astronomers have confirmed that the end of the world is only months away, and society is crumbling. This is not a rapid descent into chaos. As people give up and drop out, social institutions are slowly dissolving.

People respond to the coming apocalypse in various ways. Some “go bucket list,” dropping their responsibilities to pursue long-deferred dreams. Many commit suicide. In Henry’s small New England town, suicide by hanging has become so commonplace that the deceased are glibly referred to as “hangers.” Others take a different route, quietly and conscientiously performing their duties.

The perseverance in this world, despite it all, of things done right.

Henry falls solidly into this category. As the police department — along with due process and adherence to correct police procedure — is dying through attrition, Henry, a staid, by-the-book detective, dutifully handles his cases. In spite of everything, he is still eager, still waiting for his big case.

He gets the opportunity he’s been waiting for when an actuary is found dead in a McDonald’s bathroom, having apparently hanged himself. Henry believes there is more to this “suicide” than meets the eye. However, in the waning days of the human race, the police department has all but given up and has minimal interest in an investigation. Nevertheless, Henry persistently unravels the truth. Meanwhile he is drawn into another conundrum when his sister Nico seeks his help finding her husband.

I am a huge fan of apocalyptic stories. I’m mostly intrigued by how individuals, communities, and societies respond to cataclysmic disaster.

Despite my love of world-wide disaster (only in fiction, of course), I was a bit skeptical of this premise. Tales of an asteroid inexorably hurtling toward Earth have been done — examples include the films Melancholia and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. But The Last Policeman still impressed me. One aspect of the story that makes it stand out is the author’s portrayal of society’s evolution into an apocalyptic world. He conjures this in a way that is carefully observed, believable, vivid, and relentlessly entertaining.

In recent months the world has seen episodes of cannibalism, of ecstatic orgies; outpourings of charity and good works; attempted socialist revolutions and attempted religious revolutions; mass psychoses including the second coming of Jesus; of the return of Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali, the Commander of the Faithful; of the constellation Orion with sword and belt, climbing down from the sky. People are building rocket ships, people are building tree houses, people are taking multiple wives, people are shooting indiscriminately in public places, people are setting fire to themselves, people are studying to be doctors while doctors quit work and build huts in the desert and sit in them and pray.

The science fiction angle is also well developed. While highly improbable, the scenario with the looming asteroid is portrayed in sufficient detail — due to the author’s meticulous research — to make it seem plausible. The combination of these two factors — the science fiction piece and the portrait of a society in upheaval and transition — creates vivid, compelling world building.

Another unique aspect of this novel is the combination of an apocalyptic tale with a traditional murder mystery. Henry is plodding and somewhat naïve, but his dedication and attention to detail pay off. The mystery is well crafted and engrossing as well as exceptionally smart and funny.

Reading this seamless blend of mystery, science fiction, realism, and dark humor, written in an articulate, witty style, was pure pleasure. This novel is one of my new favorites, and I eagerly anticipate reading the rest of the series.

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