The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
Reviewed by Rahul Kanakia
18 January 2013
The Last Policeman is more of a premise than a novel, but at least the premise is an eye-catching one: in six months, an asteroid is going to collide with Earth and, most likely, wipe out all of human civilization; first, though, Detective Hank Palace has a murder to solve.
The underlying scenario unfolds in a familiar fashion. No one in Palace's department really cares about the murder. The stock market has crashed. Most corporations have folded. Inflation is skyrocketing. More and more people are leaving their jobs, either to disappear into hedonism or to check items off their "Bucket Lists." The President has imposed martial law and the police are now a paramilitary force composed primarily of newly-hired thugs. And, in Concord, New Hampshire, suicide-by-hanging has become endemic. Strange fruit is spilling out of restaurant bathrooms and apartments and supply closets all over town. No one believes Palace's intuition that one of these "suicides" might really be a murder. And, more importantly, no one really cares. Whether or not Palace catches the murderer(s), in six months they'll surely catch their final comeuppance.
We've seen a lot of this before. In 1998, the movies Deep Impact and Armageddon treated this scenario—the approach of a planet-busting asteroid—on an epic, world-spanning scale. And, recently, the movies Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) and Melancholia (2011) treated it on a petit, personal level.
We already know that society breaks down under the shadow of the asteroid. We know that life becomes sweeter and more intense when doom is inevitable. And we know that the whole scenario is really an allegory for the meaninglessness of all human endeavor in the face of our own inevitable deaths.
And The Last Policeman knows that we know this stuff. Its author, Ben H. Winters, rose to prominence by penning two of those mashup classics that were such a fad in 2009: Sense And Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina. In this, his sixth novel, he remains very aware of the cultural echoes that he's dealing with. At one point, a character even lampshades the trope by taunting a pack of evangelists with: "You want to pray to someone, pray to Bruce Willis in Armageddon."
This is the kind of novel that exists primarily as a response to other works. It assumes that the reader will come into the novel with a fair bit of pre-existing knowledge. It breezily sets forth the asteroid collision and the attendant social chaos in a few chapters. And then it sketches out a pack of standard crime-novel characters: the world-wise DA, the femme fatale, the genius medical examiner, the incompetent crime lab technician, the jaded cop who's stopped giving a damn, and, most importantly, the wet-behind-the-ears rookie who hasn't lost his sense of justice.
It's an inspired juxtaposition. The standard pre-apocalyptic story is about a bunch of ordinary people who suddenly lose their futures. And the standard crime novel is about an ordinary person who desires a particular future so much that, in seeking it, he or she begins to do horrible, indefensible things. And the novel goes on to use this juxtaposition to say . . . well . . . just barely enough.
The Last Policeman takes the drugs and the sex and the suicides and the crime for granted. And then it asks, "What else is there? Does anyone keep living normally? Is ordinary life satisfying for anyone?"
The problem with the novel is that the answer is too simple.
Some people stay. Some people keep answering phones. Some people keep manning diners. Some people keep investigating insurance claims. Some people keep solving crimes. The point is succinctly made during a conversation between Palace and the genius medical examiner. The medical examiner explains that the toxicology lab has been a mess ever since the chief toxicologist left to go study life drawing:
Fenton's lip curls up with evident distaste. "Apparently it's what she's always wanted to do. It's a mess over there. Orders getting left on the table. It's a mess."
. . . ."What about you, Dr. Fenton?"
"Excuse me?" She stops at the door, looks back.
"Why haven't you left, gone off to do whatever it is you’ve always wanted to do?"
Fenton tilts her head, looks at me like she's not exactly sure she understands the question. "This is what I've always wanted to do."
It's that easy. The novel could end right there. And that explanation is in addition to another equally satisfying one, earlier in the book, when Palace narrates the inertia that's driving much of pre-apocalyptic society:
People in the main are simply muddling along. Go to work, sit at your desk, hope the company is still around come Monday. Go to the store, push the cart, hope there's some food on the shelves today. Meet your sweetheart at lunch hour for ice cream. Okay, sure, some people have chosen to kill themselves, and some people have chosen to go Bucket List, some people are scrambling around for drugs or "wandering around with their dicks out," as McGully likes to say . . . but they are on the margins.
It's not unbelievable that, either because they can't imagine anything different or because they're happy where they are, many people—most people—would remain rooted to their lives and their responsibilities. The novel makes that point very ably, and, in doing so, it adds a few hills to the psychogeography of the planet-busting asteroid trope.
But the rest of the novel never goes deeper than that. Thematically speaking, most of the pages in this novel are only there so we have something to hold in our right hands while we flip through the first five chapters.
If anything, the remainder of the book only serves to undercut its existential themes. Information about the asteroid is only handed to us in little chunks, via precinct banter and news reports and flashbacks. Thus, for most of the novel, the characters know much more about the impending apocalypse than the reader does. Halfway through the novel we learn that there is a chance that some few people will survive the asteroid collision. On impact, the asteroid will only kill half the populace (via firestorm, earthquakes, and tsunamis). Although the rest are expected to die as a result of "the ash cloud, the darkness, [and] the twenty-degree dip in global temperatures," I was still a bit disappointed. Suddenly, we're dealing with a familiar disaster theme: the story of mankind's indomitable will to survive. We begin to understand that this isn't the end. Someone will live. And the plodding of Henry Palace begins to seem less heroic. His struggle is not absurd; it is purposeful. In holding civilization together, he is increasing the chance that something will survive the catastrophe.
Indeed, a recurring subplot in the book is the search, by various conspiracy nuts, for a spark of hope: some believe that the asteroid is a lie that was ginned up by the government; others believe that there's a secret ark that will serve as the cradle of civilization in the post-collision world. In the first half of the book, these are treated as simply another phenomenon of the impending collapse. But, in the second half of the book, some of these theories start to gain currency (though definitive answers will most likely have to await the publication of the second and third books in what seems to have become a trilogy).
If we ignore the weakening of the book's underlying premise, the rest of the novel offers a fun and competent police procedural story. The working-out of the murder offers enough twists to make the book an enjoyable experience and some of the pre-apocalyptic scenery is well-drawn.
The most substantial joy of the remainder of the novel is its setting. It's not terribly common, in fiction, to be treated to a story set in one of America's small cities. Its Bellinghams and Green Bays and Wilmingtons don't seem to get much love from writers. I enjoyed the expansive claustrophobia of Winters's Concord. It's a place that has the architecture and anonymity of a city, but a smallness that allows for interesting juxtapositions. Almost everyone that Palace meets in this novel is someone who's lived in Concord for all their lives. Palace himself works in the police department that once employed his mom (she was the department's secretary). His mentor is the detective who investigated his mother's murder. The single hospital and the single station house serve as the set for multiple encounters and multiple intertwined plots. One really gets the sense that this tiny group of people is responsible for the continued functioning of this city: there is no off-stage machinery that will take up the slack if they fail.
I enjoyed the three hours that I spent reading this book, and I'd certainly recommend it to anyone who's looking for a police procedural with a twist. But I was primed, by the intriguing premise of the book, to expect something more ambitious than that.
Oh well, in art, nothing is wasted. Just as this book is a reaction to the shallower aspects of asteroid-collision films, perhaps we will someday be treated to another book—a more complex book—that nonetheless owes its existence to some reader's dissatisfaction with The Last Policeman.