Review: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

This was a really interesting read! Detective Henry Palace has just achieved his dream of becoming a detective. He’s dedicated to his job, but unfortunately he’s also living in a pre-apocalyptic dystopia as an asteroid is due to devastate the Earth in six months time. As society breaks down around him, he remains committed to solving the case of Peter Zell, an actuary found hanged in a public toilet. It looks like a suicide but Henry is convinced that Zell was murdered and he is bound and determined to bring the killer to justice.

Winters clearly put a lot of thought into what happens to society in the face of impending doom. Drug consumption, impulse weddings, economic collapse, suicides, telecommunications failure, it’s all there. As is international conflict about the best way to handle the asteroid that’s going to destroy the planet. Pakistan wants to nuke it. The USA promises to nuke them if they try it. Conspiracy theories insist that the government has secret contingency plans, like a moon-base. Perhaps they do. I’ll be interested to see if it becomes a thing in the sequels.

I loved some of the little throw away details, like the protagonist tipping his waitress a thousand dollars due to inflation. Like the joyriders stealing an out-of-service bus for a bucket list thrill. The casual betting on which continent the asteroid will come down on. McDonald’s has collapsed and people are operating bars out of their basements. People are turning to religion or crime or pursuing their dreams to become doctors while the practicing doctors quit to become artists or travel the world. And, of course, no one cares about solving crimes. Especially a murder that looks like a suicide. Detective Henry Palace, cares a lot, though. A man is dead and the crime needs to be solved. I liked his commitment to justice and deep empathy for the murder victim, who’s almost an active character in the narrative with all the times Henry thinks of him or imagines his interactions with witnesses. I also liked Henry’s practicality and keep-calm-and-carry-on mentality. How people behave in desperate times is always an interesting subject, and here we get level-headed Henry doggedly hunting down clues and doing his job while most of the people around him are giving up. Of course, solving the crime is a coping mechanism for Henry, as various characters point out. It’s one of many we see, from religious mania to nihilism and hedonism. Be warned, suicide is discussed and featured prominently.

There’s a real sense of desperation and sadness in Winters’ writing; even Henry occasionally despairs. There’s also something tragic about him achieving his dream and becoming a detective just as the world ends. Similarly, he meets plenty of people who had dreams to do this or that who now never will. And the local hospital’s bold new building program, forever unfinished, also struck me as strangely pathetic.

The writing style is distinctively in Henry’s voice, which I liked, for the most part. My only quibble is that occasionally it lurches into uncomfortably default-male thinking. Talking to female characters, he refers to “lady-things”. At one point he mentions “People are building rocket ships, people are building tree houses, people are taking multiple wives”. I choose to interpret this phrase as including lesbian bigamists, but still, in the context of the rest of the sentence I didn’t love the erasure of women. To be fair, Henry is described as a pretty young man, so he possibly wouldn’t know any better, and it does strengthen the impression of a specifically male voice. I was also a little ambivalent about the subplot involving a femme fatale, which feels tacked-on. On the other hand, it takes us into noir territory, which I enjoyed and is actually pretty appropriate given the nihilistic state of the world.

So on the whole, I enjoyed The Last Policeman. The suicide/murder case takes enough twists and turns to be interesting, though I guessed the culprit long before Henry did. Still, Winters’ portrait of a world in crisis more than makes up for it and I would definitely read the sequels. I recommend it, though with a caveat that suicide and drug addiction are frequently mentioned.

Alternative title: The Last Sane Man

Best line:

The world is decaying bit by bit, every piece degrading at its own erratic rate, everything is trembling and crumbling in advance, the terror of the coming devastation a devastation of its own, and each minor degradation has its consequences.

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