THE LAST POLICEMAN by Ben H. Winters

250px-The_Last_Policeman_book_coverThe apocalypse is a surprisingly frequent occurrence in fiction (and indeed can be seen to constitute its own subgenre), but admittedly not one often combined with the mystery genre. This was the major selling point of this Edgar-winning novel, the first in a trilogy featuring New Hampshire detective Hank Palace, newly promoted to Homicide. Realising his career ambition proves ironic as the promotion was fast-tracked when the world learned that an asteroid was only months away from a collision that will lead almost certainly to extinction for the population of the planet. Hank is desperate to solve murders just at a time when suicide is rampant – but wouldn’t that be a perfect way to cover up your crime?

This review doesn’t count really, but don’t forget to check out some of the great titles being offered for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“The end of the world changes everything from a law-enforcement perspective”

This novel has been classed as science fiction, but only in the sense that it is set in an alternative 2012 in which people are faced with the world’s greatest existential crisis. Otherwise this is the world as we know it and peachy-keen Hank wants to investigate what he thinks is a suspicious suicide – to not unsurprising indifference by most of his understandably under-motivated colleagues. The victim worked for an insurance company, so it is possible that his death is linked to a claim he was investigating that was not all it could be. Just when the case is grinding to a halt, Hank finds surprising help (and a night of romance) from Naomi, a troubled colleague of the victim who promises to look into the situation at work – and who gets killed for her trouble. As if the possible end of all life on Earth, an indifferent justice system, a drug ring, and a pair of murders were not bad enough, Hank’s sister Nico reports that her deadbeat husband has gone missing. It then turns out that he was arrested trespassing on a secret government installation … Is there really a plan to try and save a vestige of humanity and jet off to the moon?

policeman_final_72“Why are you working so hard to solve this murder?”
“I mean -” I held up my hands.
“Because it’s unsolved.”

This book has been widely reviewed and liked and it’s easy to see why – the plot certainly hangs together while at every turn we are made to question whether the investigation of a crime in this scenario is even worth undertaking or is in fact merely a ritual, a habit or even a displacement, a way to deal with what is at hand at a time when problems are so truly cosmic that any solutions are completely out of reach (there’s a great joke in the book about the stupid-but-popular Bruce Willis flick, Armageddon). But of course the reason why ‘end of everything’ scenarios are so popular is because they provide a great opportunity to consider what is important both for ourselves and for society at large and to ponder just why so many people really would like to press the ‘re-set’ button and start all over again. Rather nicely, Winters manages to tick all these boxes and explore some additional moral and ethical conundrums before reaching a satisfying conclusion, while also setting up tantalising possible storylines for the next two volumes in the series, Countdown City (2013) and World of Trouble (2014), set in the few month left before the asteroid hits. I plan to pick these up very shortly as this is an intelligent crime novel with a difference and I look forward to seeing how far Winters is able to expand on might have been far too confining a premise.

Author website: http://benhwinters.com/

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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40 Responses to THE LAST POLICEMAN by Ben H. Winters

  1. richmcd says:

    I enjoyed the atmosphere of this, which felt a lot more plausible and well-considered than other “the end is nigh” settings I’ve encountered, but I thought the mystery itself could have done with a bit more pep. It seemed really obvious, relying on the same trick used in about half the episodes of Murder, She Wrote (no disrespect to that fine programme!).

    And while I get that the banality of the crime is kind of the point, I don’t think a perfunctory crime needs to have a perfunctory execution and resolution. Foyle’s War has a similar kind of premise (why investigate individual murders when people are dying by their thousands in the war?), and manages to mix in fairly complex mysteries without diminishing it. This felt like an episode of Castle rammed into a much better novel.

    Still, I enjoyed it enough that I’ll read the next two. I think you’re right that expanding the premise will help.

    • Thanks Rich – I thought the mystery element adequate but agree, it’s not the main selling point here (I see now that in my review I didn;t exactly dwell on that aspect). The analogy to Foyle’s War seems very apposite (though I’ve never been a fan of the show as I always thought the mysteries were poor and the resolutions nearly always relying on divine intervention).

  2. Colin says:

    Sounds interesting and a bit different, for me anyway.

  3. Glad you liked this one, Sergio. If I’m being honest, I’m not usually one for the post-apocalypse as a context. But this is a well-told story, in my opinion. And I do like Hank’s character. Somehow, it all rather worked for me.

    • Thanks Margot – I agree, I think the book manages to dodge most of the obvious pitfalls to create a believeable scenario – the mystery element is the least convincing, but it’s mainly there for ironic counterpoint one could argue.

  4. Interesting! I picked this one up on a whim because it was very cheap, had won the Edgar, and because of its hybrid science fiction/mystery nature… Curious to see how the next two volumes fare. But it’s post-apocalyptic so I will probably read them regardless 🙂

  5. tracybham says:

    I really, really liked this one (and the other two). Your review is excellent. I liked the blend of the two genres, but I do like apocalyptic fiction all by itself. At least the ones I have read so far.

  6. I thought this one (and the sequles) were outstanding – the final book in particular. Glad you lijed it.

  7. Todd Mason says:

    So, why do you think this one does;t Count…even with a recent Edgar, I’d not let it seep into my consciousness till now…thanks for the pointer…

  8. I must be the last person in the Western Hemisphere not to have read THE LAST POLICEMAN. Your fine review tempts me to find a copy and read it!

  9. John says:

    This trio of books improves as it progresses. The mystery aspect is admittedly weak in this first book. Winter adopts more of an adventure thriller style plot in book two with the sister playing a much larger role. Then finally comes into his own in the final book. The third is the best of the lot. Thankfully, Winter avoids maudlin sentimentality in the chilling final pages. I’m not a fan of trilogies and usually lose interest in them before the final book comes out, but I read all three of these and found them very rewarding on many levels.

  10. Richard says:

    Barbara (wife) liked these a lot, but did allow they got steadily more depressing with each book, as would be expected, I suppose.

  11. Yvette says:

    I think I’m going to take a chance and read these, since the praise is so high. But not right away. I’m feeling too blue lately to read about the end of the world.

    But I like the theme of a cop (or private eye) trying to do his job no matter what.

    Two other series based on this theme of ‘why bother?’ spring to mind: one set inside Nazi,. Germany: the Berlin Noir books by Philip Kerr (which I haven’t read yet, but have heard good things about) and the St. Cyr and Kohler mysteries by J. Robert Janes, one of which I read ages ago and liked. Janes’ series is set in Occupied France.

    But I’m definitely adding Ben H. Winters’ trilogy to my list. That is, if I like the first book. 🙂 Thanks for the intro, Sergio. I’d never heard of this one before. Lately I just seem to be out of touch. Snap out of it, Yvette!

    • Thanks Yvette, very kind. I think these are probably a lot more accessible than the Kerr series. Sorry you’re feeling blue chum time to watch something fab with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, surely 🙂

  12. This isn’t the kind of book I would even think of reading normally, but universally good reviews on the blogs including yours have made me think I should….

  13. Santosh Iyer says:

    By the way, what happened to your proposed review of A Three Pipe Problem by Julian Symons? I was expecting it in early 2015 (Refer your comments in the post on The Judgement Of Sherlock Holmes by Jonathan Barnes)

  14. Sergio, I like the sound of this book. I enjoy reading apocalyptic novels and the combination with mystery makes the story that much more appealing, though I can’t say I have read any. But, you’re right, I have read some good reviews of Ben H. Winters books.

  15. rthepotter says:

    I enjoyed Asimov’s Mysteries, which double the SF and mystery genres, though no apocalypses as far as I remember, (and the SF elements were dominant). So I’m glad to have seen your review and will try this one out.

  16. realthog says:

    I quite enjoyed this one, but finished it without any great urge to move on to the next volume. Your fine account makes me think I might reconsider that. Many thanks!

    • Most (on this thread at least) seem to think the third is the best … something to look forward to (even if it coincides with the end of the world, thankfully not next month after all – phew!)

  17. I have a thing for apocalyptic fiction, be it pre, mid, or post. I saw this book a lot when I worked at the bookstore, but had no idea what sort of plot it might have. Thanks for the head’s up—I’ll be tracking this one down.

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