Book Review: Countdown City

Cover are for Countdown City.
Countdown City, by Ben H. Winters (book 2 of the Last Policeman trilogy).
Countdown City is a mid-apocalyptic noir. When I reviewed The Last Policeman, I mentioned that I was a teeny bit disappointed, after reading it and loving it so much, to find out the author was working on not one, but two sequels, because I thought the ending of the first book was perfect.

I’m no longer disappointed.

The quick set-up: we’re just 70-some days away from the earth being struck my an asteroid that’s too big and was discovered too late for us to do anything about it. Society has been crumbling for some months, and our hero, Henry Palace, a former police detective in Concord, New Hampshire, is now out of work and living in a world without electricity or much of anything else, where a very militarized police force is in charge of distributing the small amount of food and goods still available.

And the woman who babysat Hank and his sister back in the days after their parents’ death while they were living with an inattentive grandparent, is begging him to find her missing husband. In a world where people are running away to do crazy things before the end, and other people are willing to kill for a stash of coffee beans, she wants him to find a missing person.

The author described the first book as existential detective novel. I continue to prefer my description as a mid-apocalyptic noir. The first book asked the question, what’s the point of solving a murder when the world is about to end. This book poses the question, what do promises and commitment mean when there is no tomorrow?

The answers this book gives, like the answers before, may not surprise you, but by the time you reach those answers, having watched what Hank does to find those answers, you believe them.

If you don’t want the slightest hint about the ending, stop now. Other wise, click the Read More below:

One reason why I think this book is even better than the previous one (and I really liked the first book), is that in the first book, Hank is the classic noir protagonist: facing certain doom and uncaring fate, he won’t back down no matter how dirty the fight, and he won’t admit to being a hero. He’s the kind of guy who does his duty because that’s what you do. And in this book, the man he is looking for, the man who appears to have abandoned his wife and everyone he had been taking care of, is that sort of man, too.

Hank meets several other versions of the noir protagonist: Each doing what they see as their duty or keeping their promises in different ways, with different shades of moral ambiguity to what they are doing.

Each of these people who are determined to do the right thing he meets is an obstacle or puzzle for Hank to overcome.

Like the first book, the final solution to his investigation is satisfying in that all of the questions are answered, all the motives and actions make sense, but the world is still coming to an end, and by the end of the book civilization is no longer just a sagging, decaying old building, that sucker has been burned to the ground.

And yet, without being unrealistic, there is still that faint hint of, well, hope is still too strong a word, but there’s a glimmer of something.

I don’t know what the author has planned next, but as we are reminded in the closing passages of the book, Hank still has one promise to keep, a promise he made to his sister when they were kids and their last adult relative had died: that he would always be there for her.

And as Hank himself said elsewhere, “A promise is a promise.”

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