Book Review: The Last Policeman

Book cover of The Last Policeman
The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters
This book came out last year, but I just finished it recently. The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters, poses the question: what’s the point of solving a murder when the world is about to end?

The book is set in the very near future. The set up is that there’s a previously unknown asteroid on an eccentric orbit aimed at earth. It’s too big for any technology we have to do anything about in the time remaining. Society is slowly deteriorating as people abandon jobs to go do things they always wanted (I’m particularly fond of the sample list the narrator makes: dangerous sport, sexual fantasy, or track down that fourth-grade bully and punch him in the nose), or join religious cults, or just go on a rampage.

Our narrator, Hank Palace, is a detective in Concord, New Hampshire. He grew up in Concord (his mother worked as a dispatcher for the Concord Police when he was a child), and had dreamed of being a cop. Just barely not a rookie patrolman when the asteroid strike became inevitable, he’s been promoted to Detective as much through attrition as merit. And he’s confronted with a suspicious death that everyone wants to write off as a suicide. Hank isn’t so sure.

The author describes it as an existential detective novel. I think of it more as mid-apocalyptic noir, as Hank’s world certainly has plenty of disorder and disaffection to qualify as noir on its own. Hank walks that shadowy line charted by such characters as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe: he knows the world is falling apart, but he’s self-destructively determined that justice will be done.

The decay of society depicted feels very real, and the characters are all well defined. The complications and red herrings never seem forced or out of place. There are mysteries within mysteries. You’ll see some of the solutions coming, though not so obviously as to be boring. And even the most surprising one, to me, when it was revealed, had that sense of, “Oh, of course! Why didn’t I realize that’s what those things meant?”

It’s also nice to see a detective story set in a smaller city, like Concord. The setting is just big enough to be a city, without the clichés or over familiarity of places like New York or LA. I also enjoyed the fact that Hank isn’t the only character determined to do the right thing, despite the futility of it all, and that those characters who get to know aren’t all doing it for exactly the same reasons.

I really enjoyed the book a lot, and highly recommend it. Since the Mystery Writers of America awarded it the 2012 Edgar award for Best Original Paperback, I must not be the only one to like it.

Which isn’t to say that it is perfect. One rather trivial set of imperfections I have to mention. It’s pretty obvious that at least some of this book was dictated using some kind of speech to text software, which left some confusing errors that didn’t get caught by an editor (assuming there was one).

For example, there’s a point when Hank is describing an emotionally stiff person. The sentence included the phrase, “like a peace offense.” I actually had to mutter it to myself before I finally realized it was supposed to be “a piece of fence.” A copy editor would have corrected the homonym, but a developmental editor would have said, “I think the word you’re looking for is ‘fencepost’.” At another point Hank is listing off some observatories, “Arecibo, Canberra, and Gold’s tone.” That last one should have been Goldstone, for the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the Mojave Desert.

But as prone to typos as I am, I can’t fault it too much on that account.

The other imperfection is external to the book. I can’t explain it without talking about the ending. I’m not going to give anything specific away, but if you don’t want even a few indications about the end, stop now.

Otherwise, click “Continue reading…”

Still here? Okay:

I really enjoyed how the book ended with Hank’s case solved, but without everything else neatly tied up in an implausible happy ending. The ending isn’t depressing, but it is barely a glimmer brighter than the darkness of the rest of the story. Not full-on hopeful, but more the slightest possibility of hope? Which I think was exactly the right tone to finish this sort of tale.

It was when I was looking for an image of the cover for this review, and confirming that it had won the award, that I found out that the author is working on not one, but two sequels. Knowing that there is more to come, to me, detracts a bit from the ending.

I recognize that the book was well-received and won an award, and so a sequel is more likely to sell well than some unrelated book the author might write. And since the The Last Policeman ends some months before the impact, there is room to tell more stories in this setting. I certainly liked enough of the characters that I’m curious as to what happens to them.

But I liked the… I’m not sure if open-ended is the word to use when a horrible disaster is still bearing down on the world. Let’s call it nondeterminate. I really liked the nondeterminate ending, leaving the reader to ponder the possibilities of what might happen next.

But, it’s his story to tell, not mine. And who am I kidding? I know I’m going to buy the sequel. Because I’m dying to know what happens next!

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