Review: “The Last Policeman” by Ben H. Winters

Title: “The Last Policeman”

Author: Ben H. Winters

Genre: Adult, Mystery, Apocalyptic/Sci-Fi

Publication Date: July 10, 2012 (North America – Quirk/Random House)

Source: Publisher review copy

Summary: What’s the point of solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?

Hank Palace, a homicide detective in Concord, New Hampshire, asks this question every day.

Most people have stopped doing whatever it is they did before the asteroid 2011L47J hovered into view. Stopped selling real estate; stopped working at hospitals; stopped slinging hash or driving cabs or trading high-yield securities. A lot of folks spend their days on bended knee, praying to Jesus or Allah or whoever they think might save them. Others have gone the other way, roaming the streets, enjoying what pleasures they can before the grand finale. Government services are beginning to slip into disarray, crops are left to rot.

When it first appeared, 2011L47J was just a speck, somewhere beyond Jupiter’s orbit. By mid-October it revealed itself to be seven kilometers in diameter, and on a crash course with the Earth. Now it’s March, and sometime in September, 2011L47J will slam into our planet and kill half the population immediately, and most of the rest in the miserable decades that follow.

All of humanity now, every person in the world–we’re like a bunch of little kids, in deep, deep trouble, just waiting till our dad gets home. So what do I do while I wait? I work.

Today, Hank Palace is working the case of Peter Zell, an insurance man who has comitted suicide. To his fellow police officers, it’s just one more death-by-hanging in a city that sees a dozen of suicides every week. But Palace senses something wrong. There’s something odd about the crime scene. Something off. Palace becomes convinced that it’s murder. And he’s the only one who cares.

What’s the difference, Palace? We’re all gonna die soon, anyway.

As Palace digs deeper, we are drawn into his world. We meet his sister Nico and her screwup boyfriend, Derek, who are trying to beam S.O.S messages into outer space; we meet Erik Littlejohn, a “spiritual advisor” helping his clients through these difficult times. Palace’s investigation plays out under the long shadow of 2011L47J, forcing everyone in the book — and those reading it– to confront hard questions way beyond “whodunnit.” What basis does civilization rest upon? What is life worth? What would any of us do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?

☆: 4/5 stars – a wonderful new series that asks scary (but important) existential questions!

Review: First, check out this AWESOME trailer put together by Quirk to promote the book:

Definitely makes you want to read it, right?

Winters feels like a whole new novelist with “The Last Policeman” – there’s a different feel to his prose when compared to “Bedbugs” and his earlier efforts. The idea of having a murder mystery taking place in the middle of the Sixth Extinction (the sixth large extinction event to wipe out whichever dominant species is on Earth) is absolutely brilliant, and I really enjoyed it. And yet it asks a very important question – would we do the same in Palace’s place? Would we go ahead and investigate what appears to be yet another suicide on a gut instinct when we all have only so many more months to live? That question alone kept me riveted until the end.

I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but somehow Winters feels like he’s really majorly matured as a novelist. I think it’s because his worldbuilding skills have really, really improved since “Bedbugs” – shrinking the world to the city of Concord (and its surrounding areas) and giving it such a limited timeline to work with, along with a killer (no pun intended) backstory really worked here. Along with the construction of the victim, Peter Zell, and his entire history before the supposed suicide, was absolutely excellent. However, the one area where I feel he needs work was on the construction of the protagonist himself – while Palace is an excellent detective, I didn’t quite get enough of him for him to feel entirely 3D. While he was adequate as a storyteller to narrate the whodunnit, I still wanted more of his backstory than what I did get. Since this is the first of a trilogy, here’s hoping that things can only get better from here with the construction of Palace as not just a narrator but a character that’s really interacting with everyone on the case.

Even with my nitpicking, Palace does get a great character transformation/journey arc throughout the book where by the end of the book he’s a bit different than where we meet him on the first page, and I feel like Winters really hit his stride concerning Palace’s character construction about halfway through the book. While not ideal, it’s better than not finding one’s stride at all, and I’m happy he did. Palace is a sympathetic, likeable guy that you just kind of want to give a hug (and all the awards) for staying on the job while the rest of the world around him is just kind of falling apart.

The story itself had a lot of twists and turns I definitely did not see coming – I did have some inklings of what might happen at the end, but for the most part, by the last page, I really, really wanted that second book in my hands NOW. I love who ends up being the villain, and why Zell dies, as well as the tantalizing secret of why the US government is suddenly changing all of these laws – both on the federal and state levels – all over the place “in preparation” of the coming asteroid. That kind-of cliffhanger alone made me want to read the second book.

While it’s by no means a perfect tale, it’s my favorite of Winters’ works yet, and I really can’t wait until book 2 gets released. “The Last Policeman” is out now from Quirk/Random House in North America, so be sure to check it out when you can! It’s made my best of 2012 list, and its place there is well deserved indeed. Want something new to try? This police procedural at the end of the world will definitely leave you begging for more.


4 thoughts on “Review: “The Last Policeman” by Ben H. Winters

  1. Pingback: usagi’s challenges for 2012! | birth of a new witch.

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  3. Pingback: Teaser Tuesday | Jess resides here

  4. Pingback: Author Interview: Ben H. Winters on Police Procedurals, The End of the World, and more! | birth of a new witch.

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