Set in Concord, New Hampshire, Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman follows Hank Palace, an investigative detective. The book opens in March 2012, when Hank has been promoted from beat cop after another detective suddenly took early retirement.
In September 2011, scientists discover that an asteroid is bearing down on Earth and by October 2012 all life will be obliterated. As a result, the world economy is crumbling. Businesses have gone bankrupt or become fronts for religious cults. The majority of the world has reacted by either killing themselves or cashing in their savings and “going Bucket List.”
Habeas corpus has been suspended due to the Impact Preparation Security and Stability Act (IPSS). Anyone caught dealing drugs or found guilty of murder spends their final six months in solitary confinement.
In light of all this, Hank is well aware that his work doesn’t matter. Why go out of his way to fight crime when the world is literally ending in six months? So when the body of Peter Zell, a reclusive insurance agent, is found in the bathroom of an old McDonalds, Hank is urged to write it off as yet another suicide, but something about the situation appears off and he begins investigating it as a suspicious death.
Even after Hank discovers that Zell was involved in something larger, his co-workers harass him and treat him like an over-eager rookie. The assistant attorney general is annoyed at being called in on what he deems an obvious suicide, and Hank’s boss just barely humors him. Then Hank’s brother-in-law goes missing, and he must contend with his mentally ill sister, who is convinced the asteroid is part of a global conspiracy.
The first in a trilogy, The Last Policeman reads like a classic detective novel. Hank is from a different age—a time when the good guys went after the bad guys and the lines between right and wrong were far less blurred.
Aside from cell phones and the Internet, The Last Policeman could be lifted from a Dick Tracy novel or an old Humphrey Bogart movie. The traits Hank admires most are stereotypical detective traits, such as the fact that his coworker still wears a suit and tie every day.
The book draws obvious comparisons to the movie Armageddon, or, less obviously, to The Children of Men by P.D. James. Each presents the question of what happens to society in the face of inevitable demise. In Armageddon, Ben Affleck saves the day and returns a hero. In The Last Policeman, Pakistan and the US are arguing over Pakistan’s plan to blast the object out of orbit. Schools have become places for orphans; doomsday prophets have appeared on nearly every corner.
In The Children of Men, faced with a world in which there are no more children, schools close, and society worships its last children.
What Came After, by Sam Winston, has elements I hoped The Last Policeman would address. The world economy has collapsed and is now controlled by only a few corporations. In contrast to The Last Policeman, the wealthy have the means to resolve nearly all their needs while the poor suffer from starvation and die from basic health issues.
In The Last Policeman, the wealthy suffer as their stocks and bonds are suddenly worthless and the value of cash is virtually meaningless. The very poor find themselves no worse off or perhaps even slightly better off, given the rise in a trade and barter system. In both novels, education is no longer valued and many of the schools and universities have been abandoned.
Winters does a good job of mixing dystopian fiction and the classic detective novel. The first person narrative makes the reader feel invested in the storyline, but the “dime store detective novel” tone feels somewhat forced and over-the-top. Hank’s character seemed wooden and not what a reader would expect from a person dealing with the events of the novel.
In a similar real-life scenario, the likelihood of total destruction of life on Earth is improbable at best. Winters addresses this in interviews, saying he wanted to create a certain-destruction scenario, but the implausibility detracts from the larger picture.
The Last Policeman is an interesting and engaging story, but Winters’ style reads as if he’s trying a little too hard to take on the classic detective novel. I also wanted to know more of the subplot involving Hank and his sister, Nico, though Winters has said it’s addressed more in the subsequent two novels of the trilogy. ★ ★ ★ ½
Kris Milstead is a nerd insomniac. When she is not surfing the Internet or watching Doctor Who, she can probably be found reading and working on her next book review. You can follow her on Twitter at medelle71 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.