When asteroid 2011GV1 (Maia) first appeared in the sky, it sparked a worldwide enthusiasm in astronomy. It would be, astronomers predicted, a spectacular near miss. But, as the days passed and the calculations were repeated and repeated, the optimism vanished. This would not be a near miss – it would be a dead hit. In just six months. What is one to do? What would you do?
Hank Palace is a young detective, newly promoted, in Concord, New Hampshire. He is honest, immensely likeable and obsessive – he shelves misplaced books in libraries, he writes down every fact in one of his father’s old notebooks, he will not led a lead drop, hanging on to it for all its worth and pursuing it to its end, no matter the cost. When the body of Peter Zell is found in the bathroom of a McDonalds, hanged, there is nothing to challenge the assumption that he is one of the many suicides you’d expect when an asteroid is about to hit. But Hank notices something odd about the body and, despite the good natured, even affectionate teasing of his colleagues, Hank will not let it go.
What follows is an intriguing and absorbing murder mystery, a whodunnit that twists and turns, pursued by the determined and earnest Hank Palace. But the mystery is just one half of The Last Policeman. There is a reason for the title. With the end of the world only six months away everyone has to ask him or herself what they want to do with their last weeks. Many cannot face it and kill themselves, some drink or drug themselves into a peaceful state of denial, some turn to spirituality or hedonism or violence, others set off in pursuit of their Bucket List, abandoning families and homes to chase after a last dream. A few can only do what they are meant to do. There is very little higher on Hank Palace’s Bucket List than fulfilling his role of being the best detective he can be, of finding justice for Peter Zell and others like him. Almost inevitably, Hank draws people to him and almost despite themselves quite a few stop to help him.
The other half of the novel is the depiction of a society beginning to lose itself in the horror and fear of what is to come. With six months to go and with the dreadful news relatively recent the world, or at least this piece of it in New Hampshire, is just about hanging on to a degree of normalcy. Many people are still working, children are still at school, there is still water, electricity, money, phonelines and internet. But it is getting harder. Phones often don’t work, fuel is about gone, business are closing, a restaurant meal costs thousands of dollars. For the moment there is still a police force but now it is regulated by a whole new set of laws. The smallest offence now will land the culprit (guilty or not) in a cell for the duration. That is a fierce deterrent – for the time being.
The Last Policeman is a terrific novel. It’s short, punchy, exhilarating and utterly addictive. Written in the first person and present tense, we see it all through Hank Palace’s eyes and experiences. I’m not a huge fan of first person present tense but if the style was made for any novel it’s this one. Hank is a marvellous companion – he is compassionate, warm, self-deprecating, persistent and active. The world might be about to end but this is by no means a depressing story. Ben H. Winters fills the pages with the humanity, often humorous, of every day interactions between Hank and his colleagues, family and friends. Hank’s batty younger sister Niko is flakey but also entertaining, introducing a touch of conspiracy theory. It’s hard not to care about her, especially as Winters deftly builds into our understanding the back story that has helped define Hank and Nico’s lives. There is a touch of tragedy throughout, not just because of the asteroid, but also because of the relationships and feelings that Hank must deal with. I was with him every step of the way.
The Last Policeman is the first in a trilogy – while one element is solved, the whodunnit, the other element, the asteroid impact, can only intensify as the days pass and I cannot wait to see how. There is so much going on, so many big themes and important questions, all feeling especially powerful because the whole scenario is dealt with so realistically. This is a very real dystopia, made even more so by the gradual pace at which it grips hold. I was captivated by the end of world scenario and enchanted by the character of Hank Palace. There was only one thing I could do after reading this and that was turn to book two, Countdown City, immediately. I am now about to read the final book. Fabulous!