The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters is a noir police procedural with a pre-apocalyptic twist, complete with a femme fatale, a hard boiled detective, the wide eyed idealist and a town with a dark underbelly. The book begins with newly promoted junior detective Henry Palace examining the corpse of a man who appears to have committed suicide. But Palace is convinced there’s more to it. This innovative novel is set against the backdrop of a planet-ending asteroid named Maia, heading toward Earth. And Henry Palace… keeps doing his job.
(This review discusses suicide. If you are struggling, please contact the Samaritans).
The date that everybody knows is October 3, six months and eleven days from today, when a 6.5-kilometer-diameter ball of carbon and silicates will collide with Earth.
What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?
Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.
The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares.
Dr. Leo Tolkin trembling, almost laughing. “Options? There are no options.” – p75
One of the most intriguing parts of this pre-apocalyptic book, set in Concord, New Hampshire, is the way society is fraying at the edges. The government have legalised marijuana, while banning harder drugs and guns, with severe penalties for minor offences. Telephone networks are dropping section by section. CEOs are cashing out to the Bahamas; teenagers are partying in New Orleans. People are turning to religion, crime, hedonism, suicide. Others are staying at their posts, teaching, policing, delivering babies; out of duty, desperation or delusion.
Many run off to do what they always wanted – the characters in the novel call it ‘Going Bucket List’. Hank later asks forensic pathologist Dr Fenton why she hasn’t gone off to fulfil her dreams; she explains that dissecting bodies is her dream; “this is what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Henry? Well he reacts by fixating on his police work.
“I quit my job as soon as we knew this shit was really happening. I mean, why waste time at work?”
“You worked three days a week at a farmers’ market. I solve murders.”
Henry is a good policeman; excited to be promoted, keen to be good at his job, conscientious to a fault. However his hyper focus is almost pathological in nature. At one point, his colleagues discuss whether the USA are going to pre-emptively nuke Pakistan, with devastating global consequences – but Henry is fixated on his snow chains, and whether they’ve been tampered with. When his co-worker starts talking about the planet destroying asteroid, he dismisses the officer’s chattering – after all, a man is dead!
“You have no idea, young man,” he says morosely, “You have no idea what’s important.”
One thing I love about the portrayal of Detective Henry Palace is the nuance. It isn’t a case of him being a perfect example of morality in a decaying world. His complete fixation on the case gets several fairly blameless people murdered and there are three suicides (Detective Andreas and the Gompers) that he could be considered responsible for. It’s clearly illustrated that pursuing this case is his coping mechanism, not materially different from the ones he disdains. While he admires and respects people who keep working, as his conversation with his sister illustrates, that’s a lot more appealing if you’re doing meaningful and fulfilling work.
Grief, Mortality and Suicide
The Last Policeman reminds me of Never Let Me Go, by Ishiguro. Death isn’t just a distant possibility; it’s an imminent certainty. There’s simply nothing to be done. Underlying the horror of the clone system, of sentient people bred for parts, was the grief of mortality. We all know death is coming – but to *know* in that blunt and monstrous way? To know that you have to step into that operating theatre, or simply wait for the asteroid to hit?
All at once it was just a matter of time. Odds of impact one hundred percent. October 3. No options.
A great deal of the book centres around people’s reaction to this morbid certainty. Many people in Concord opt for suicide.
Henry himself has a fixation on suicide, in part due to way his father died. He keeps asking people whether or not they would, and has an catchphrase “they weren’t going to make it.” Meaning that he knew the person would choose to die. It illustrates how parlance has changed in this pre-apocalyptic society. In Palace’s world, no one is actually going to make it. But some will stay until the moment of truth.
The Proposed Adaptation
I’m not excited about the proposed Fox adaptation of the novel, titled “The Last Police”. Not because they’ve they’ve race and gender flipped the character, but because Palace is unrecognisable. They’ve changed the main character to be a person who tries to commit suicide and becomes a relentless ambassador for optimism and hope when their attempt fails.
“People’s inability to face up to this thing is worse than the thing, it really is.”
This is so antithetical to Palace’s character as to be ludicrous. The fact that he would never commit suicide is a key feature of his character. What makes him interesting is his uncharitable contempt for normal human frailty, even in himself. He disdains all the ways in which people are attempting to escape the reality of Maia; he would no more kill himself than turn to opiates.
It’s a shame, because I’d love to see a hyper fixated, justice obsessed, Last Good Man style detective played by a black woman.
In the End
“It’s never too late.” “Well.” The security officer coughs hoarsely, adjusts his battered cap. “It is, though.” – p41
I picked the trilogy up via Kindle during the height of lockdown… it was an oddly comforting and cathartic read during that dark time. I actually really loved it, and ended up reading all three books in one day. It was warm, believable and had a streak of dark humour I appreciated. Would recommend, along with the rest of the series.