Review: The Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters

“Because as any writer will tell you, an IDEA for a book is like falling in love, it’s all wild emotion and headlong rush, but the ACTUAL ACT of writing a book is like building a relationship: it is joyous, slow, fragile, frustrating, exhilarating, painstaking, exhausting, worth it.”
~Ben H. Winters, The Last Policeman

Plot summary

“What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway? Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.

The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares.

The first in a trilogy, The Last Policeman offers a mystery set on the brink of an apocalypse. As Palace’s investigation plays out under the shadow of 2011GV1, we’re confronted by hard questions way beyond “whodunit.” 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?” More on Goodreads

On Ben H. Winters
Cover for the World of Trouble, The Last Policeman Book III by Ben H. Winters. Photo: el cajon yacht club (CC BY 2.0)
Cover for the World of Trouble, The Last Policeman Book III by Ben H. Winters. Photo: el cajon yacht club (CC BY 2.0)

“Ben H. Winters is the author of nine novels, including most recently the New York Times bestselling Underground Airlines. His other work includes the award-winning Last Policeman trilogy.

The Last Policeman was the recipient of the 2012 Edgar Award, and it was also named one of the Best Books of 2012 by Amazon.com and Slate.” More on benhwinters.com

Key concepts
  • Why bother in the face of an ultimatum?
  • Way to cope in distress
  • Decency of humanity?
Review

[E]very choice forecloses on other choices; each step forward leaves a thousand dead possible universes behind you.” ~Ben H. Winters, Countdown City

Road. Photo: Public Domain
Road. Photo: Public Domain

I am so glad I picked up the first novel in The Last Policeman trilogy. I read all three novels almost consecutively.

What starts as a classic crime story soon develops into much more as one witnesses the falling down of the society. Basically, solving crimes can become one’s personal motivation and something to hold onto in the face of an imminent threat. The reader bears witness to the emotional struggle of the various characters showing up in the trilogy.

The crumpling down also applies to the main character. In the beginning, Henry Palace is a straight-forward cop, but in the end he seems to have difficulties in deciphering between what is real and what is not. The tone intensifies towards the end and Henry becomes more neurotic to find facts to sooth his inner turmoil.

One reads enough dystopic post-apocalypse novels, so in a sense Winters’ trilogy offers a refreshing perspective on humanity before the imminent threat at hand. One witnesses decent people become total nut cases and the weirdest of ideas multiplying as individuals try to cope with the situation. The hopelessness is vivid, nobody can do a single thing to avert the asteroid from its course towards Earth.

What remains is the powerful emotion to find meaning and comfort in the New England setting – in other people or in pets. Henry is accompanied by Houdini, a dog he came to know in the first part of the trilogy. Houdini is a stable element in the story, a contrasting figure to Henry’s little sister Nico who slips away at every chance she has.

Landscape. Photo: Monica Arellano-Ongpin (CC BY 2.0)
Landscape. Photo: Monica Arellano-Ongpin (CC BY 2.0)

The story is melancholic and sad. There are moments when one regards the sanity of humanity lost. The number of fanatics – be it religious, political or followers of other agendas – intensifies and the pairing of Henry-Houdini seems like the only decent and sensible duo. However, towards the last volume in the trilogy, the dynamic duo becomes vulnerable as well. It seems that Henry is almost on the brink of going insane.

Almost always, things are exactly as they appear. People are continually looking at the painful or boring parts of life with the half-hidden expectation that there is more going on beneath the surface, some deeper meaning that will eventually be unveiled; we’re waiting for the saving grace, the shocking reveal. But almost always things just are what they are, almost always there’s no glittering one hidden under the dirt.” ~Ben H. Winters, World of Trouble

The trilogy is a powerful tale of the folly of humanity. Some of us go to great lengths at deciphering random meaning and some give in to outside pressure. How would one react in a situation as abysmal as the context presented in the trilogy? Would a person living according to “well, we are basically just star-dust” be able to remain calm and face the facts? I think it would indeed be easier for rationalist minds, whereas fanatics cannot cope with the fact that their worldview comes spiraling down to nothingness. It is a crushing fact if there is nothing one can do about the situation. The devastating fact will not disappear through praying or any other method of trust in supernatural forces.

How do you think you would react if an asteroid is heading towards our beloved planet Earth and is about to destroy us without consulting the inhabitants of this said planet first?

Other Pre-Apocalyptic novels
  • Karen Thompson Walker: The Age of Miracles (2012)
  • Ed Brisson: Sheltered (2013)
  • Ceri A. Lowe: Paradigm (2014)
  • Liu Cixin: The Three-Body Problem (2007)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson: Forty Signs of Rain (2004)
  • Short story collection: The End is Nigh (2014), several contributors
  • Greg Bear: The Forge of God (1987)
  • Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited (1945)
  • Short story collection: This Way to the End Times: Classic Tales of the Apocalypse (2016), several contributors
  • Michel Faber: The Book of Strange New Things (2014)
  • Jeff VanderMeer: Acceptance (2014)
  • W.J. Davies: Binary Cycle: Disruption (2013)

Source: Goodreads

Further novels and stories by Winters
  • Cats (2009)
  • The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman (2009)
  • Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (2009)
  • Android Karenina (2010)
  • The Complete Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Man Skills (2010), contributor
  • Bedbugs (2011)
  • Literally Disturbed series (2013-2014)
  • The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination: Original Short Fiction for the Modern Evil Genius (2013), contributor
  • The Apocalypse Triptych (2014-2015), contributor
  • Dead Man’s Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West (2014), contributor
  • The End Is Now (2014)
  • Underground Airlines (2016)
Biker. Photo: CC0 Public Domain
Biker. Photo: CC0 Public Domain

More information
– Ethan Gilsdorf: Solving Murders at the End of the World: An Interview with Ben H. Winters, published in Wired on 12 July 2012, link retrieved on 28 March 2017
– James Floyd Kelly: The Last Policeman Serves and Protects Even at World’s End, published in Wired on 28 August 2012, link retrieved on 28 March 2017
– Dan Kois: Here Comes the Big One, published in The Slate Book Review on 3 August 2012, link retrieved on 28 March 2017

“The end of the world changes everything, from a law-enforcement perspective.”
~Ben H. Winters, The Last Policeman

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Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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