World of Trouble completes Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman trilogy – this is not a book to read without having devoured The Last Policeman and Countdown City first. Also do beware that the review below may contain information about the other two books that you might prefer not to know if you haven’t read them yet. So warnings done…
Henry (Hank) Palace will always be a detective. It’s in his blood, it fuels his days, and not even the end of days can stop him. Maia, an asteroid on a collision course with Earth is now just two weeks away. With only days to live, Hank is driven to solve his last mystery and it’s a personal one, too. His younger sister Nico is on the run, caught up with a group that believes the predictions of Earth’s destruction are a conspiracy and they are set to do something about it. Hank knows first-hand that they have considerable resources as well as numbers but his hunt is not inspired by any sense of hope, he simply wants to see his sister again, the only member of his family he has left, and to know she is as safe as one can be. And so Hank, a much loved man, leaves his friends behind and sets out on his bicycle with his dog Houdini and the really rather unpleasant albeit resourceful Cortez to follow the clues to Nico.
The journey takes them across a desolate America, one divided into damaged towns that Hank grades by colour depending on their hostility to strangers, from red (the most violent) to green (inhabited by people in denial). Society and government have now broken down altogether. Nowhere is safe. There is little food and water and no power or fuel. Lawlessness and fear are in control now. But Hank Palace is an extraordinary individual. He is a kind, honourable man, ever true to the values that inspired him to be a policeman. We see the shattered world through Hank’s eyes and as a result we find goodness, friendship and even hope, no matter what he sees and experiences. And he sees and experiences some terrible things.
What Hank and Cortex discover in an Ohio police station reveals another mystery that Hank will stop at nothing, bar the end of days itself, to solve. Little reveals Hank’s progress over the last three novels more than his determination and obsession to solve this final terrible case before time runs out. In The Last Policeman Hank investigated the murder of a stranger, revealing the initial stages of social collapse with the asteroid hit still six months off; in Countdown City Hank sets out to find the missing husband of the woman who helped raise himself and his sister during an especially bleak time. That case, set a couple of months before impact, introduced us to Nico’s conspiracy theories and the way in which people, and the government, were dealing with what lay in store. In this final novel, everything is more desperate, rushed, tense and so brutal and yet amongst it all Hank can still find strangers to look after. By now, the reader wants nothing more than to look after Hank.
Hank Palace is a wonderful creation and I’ve grown to care for him deeply over the three books. He has his foibles and eccentricities but he is all the more real for it. The way that he cares for his dog Houdini is loving but it isn’t sentimental. Hank meets people in this novel who treat him with the utmost hostility but he never lets it overcome him. He’s impossible to dislike. By contrast, there are others here who are despicable, monsters made not just by the circumstances of the asteroid. You need someone like Hank up against forces like this. The enemy isn’t the asteroid.
The novels are narrated by Hank in the first person present tense. I’m not usually a big fan of this style but it works here so well. It’s as if no-one, not even the author himself, knows what will happen as the asteroid comes closer and closer. Despite the tragedy, the violence and the distress, World of Trouble is not a depressing book to read. There is a humour to it and a lightness, largely thanks to the character of Hank but also thanks to the elegance and beauty of Ben H. Winters’ writing. None of the novels is long – not much more than 300 pages apiece – and the narrative gains enormously from Winters’ terrific focus. He has also combined apocalyptic science fiction with police procedural and crime fiction superbly. Without doubt, this is one of the finest trilogies I have ever read.
Throughout, the question has been how will Ben H. Winters close this trilogy. The answer to that, I am so pleased but not surprised to say, is that he closes it perfectly.