What’s the point in solving a murder when we’re all going to die anyway? Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman is a brilliant pre-apocalyptic murder (is it even a murder?) mystery. Asteroid 2011GV1, also known as Maia, is 100% certain to hit the earth in six months. Many have gone “Bucket List” — quitting their jobs, getting married, following long-suppressed dreams. Some decide to commit suicide. At first glance, the insurance agent found hanging by a monogrammed black leather belt in a McDonald’s washroom appears to be just another in a long string of suicides. But something about the scene strikes Detective Hank Palace as off and, despite indifference from pretty much everyone else, he decides to investigate.
The Last Policeman is a page turner of a puzzle. The victim is a mild-mannered actuarial specialist more comfortable with his numbers rather than with people. He had one sister, no friends, and practically no social life. Who would want to kill him? As Palace examines the victim’s life, he uncovers secrets that are awesome mostly because of how nerdily they’re framed, which is very much in character for the victim.
Underlying the mystery is the ever-looming apocalypse. Why does it even matter if this man was murdered? Why bother spending the last six months of your life hunting down a killer who may not even exist? To Winters’ credit, characters mention the apocalypse but are never maudlin. In one scene, Palace’s co-worker breathlessly posits the possibility (based on a potential glitch in the video that charts its trajectory) that the asteroid may miss. Palace spills the co-worker’s coffee and points out that no matter how much they talk about how the coffee will drip to the floor, the result will remain the same. Bam. Brutal. Yet a necessary call to reality? Even that is problematized, and even Palace later regrets his actions.
Despite the bleakness of the characters’ future, the story is funny. Rather morbid humour, of course, but well, how else would you react to an impending apocalypse? In one scene, Palace is surrounded by religious fanatics calling upon him to convert. His polite responses — “Yes, thank you, I did hear about it.” — are as hilarious as they are ineffective.
The sequel Countdown City, now 77 days before the asteroid hits, is a bit bleaker in tone. Martha Cavatone, who babysat Hank Palace and his sister when they were kids, has asked him to find her missing husband. Common sense says the husband left to join a mistress or have casual sex on a beach somewhere, but Martha insists he would have left only to do something noble. As with the first book, the question becomes, why bother tracking down a man who most likely just wanted to spend his last three months away from his wife?
This book delves even deeper into the human situation pre-apocalypse. The search leads Palace into an anarchist/pseudo-utopian society on a college campus. A woman there tells him that similar societies usually fail because a despot inevitably appears and again imposes a form of hierarchy. However, the asteroid has provided their group with a unique opportunity — all they have to do is last 77 more days with their current system, and they’ll have succeeded where others failed. Is this goal worth striving for, or will it be ultimately a futile exercise? Well, when the entire planet has only 77 days left, what determines success and futility?
Such philosophical enquiries are raised by Winters’ series, and while the stories never allow themselves to dwell too much on these questions (always, the focus remains on the mystery), they do stay with the reader. There’s a lot more going on within these pages than a straightforward mystery, and the author’s restraint in dealing with these issues compels the reader to ponder them long after the story itself ends.
There are many post-apocalyptic books on the market; pre-apocalyptic ones are far rarer. Even more rare is a pre-apocalyptic book where the end of the world simply features as a backdrop to a murder mystery. Even for those of us who love our job, how many would actually keep working if the world was certain to end in six months? Hank Palace is a noble man, and to Winters’ credit, no one ever makes a big deal of this nobility. Why does he keep investigating potential murders and missing persons? He doesn’t know, and no one else cares, really. He just does. And we, as readers, are all the richer for it.
The ending of Countdown City hints at a killer of a plot for the third and final instalment to this series. If I guess right, Palace will go in search of his sister and investigate a group that claims to be able to stop the asteroid (this group is mentioned in books 1 and 2). I devoured The Last Policeman and Countdown City in two days. I certainly have no wish for Hank Palace’s world to end, but I definitely can’t wait for book three.
Thank you to Quirk Books for a copy of The Last Policeman and an ARC of Countdown City. I received both as prizes in a Facebook contest, with no obligation to review.