May 30, 2013

Book Review: The Last Policeman: A Novel By Ben H. Winters

Three monumental events have happened since I first read The Last Policeman: A Novel by Ben H. Winters in July of 2012:
  1.  February 2013:  Asteroid 2012 DA14 disintegrated above the Urals, Russia, as video cams caught the fireball for the world to see on YouTube. With a diameter of 55 feet and weight of 10,000 tons, NASA estimated the energy released was about 30 times the size of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The fallout in Russia injured more than 1,200 people in and around Chelyabinsk, Russia, where most of the damage took place.
  2.  May 2013: The Last Policeman: A Novel by Ben H. Winters is released in paperback.
  3.  May 2013:  Ben H. Winters wins the 2013 Edgar Award for BestOriginal Paperback, beating out Complication by Isaac Adamson; Whiplash River by Lou Berney; Bloodland by Alan Glynn; and Blessed are The Dead by Malla Nunn. (Hardly surprising for early adopters, who now breathlessly await Countdown City, the second of a planned trilogy, to be released in July. – ed.) For those of you who haven’t had the undeniable pleasure of reading The Last Policeman, I’d like to take this opportunity to encourage you – strongly – to do so. Quickly.
This page-burning, sci-fi/police procedural takes place six months before Asteroid 2011GV1 is expected to slam into the earth – exact destination unknown – and wreak total destruction on mankind. The psychic devastation has already begun:

“In a little more than six months, according to the most reliable scientific predictions, at least half the planet’s population will die in a series of interlocking cataclysms. A ten-megaton explosion, roughly equaling the blast force of a thousand Hiroshimas, will scorch a massive crater into the ground . . . then will come the ash cloud, the darkness, the twenty-degree dip in global temperatures. No crops, no cattle, no light. The slow cold fate of those who remain.”  

Its similarity to actual events in Russia begs the question:  Ben Winters, what did you know and when did you know it?

In this vastly original story of a thinly-veiled, fictitious and pre-apocalyptic world, there are no more real McDonald’s, 7-11’s, or Dunkin’ Donuts; cell phone service has broken down; companies have gone back to paper because the networks are incredibly slow; and people have sold their assets and moved to the islands or abandoned their responsibilities to live out their bucket lists. Morality has all but disappeared:  why bother when we’re all going to die? For those who stay behind and can’t handle the future, there are plenty of illegal opiates to dull reality; or the old fallback, suicide.

When Chapter One opens, Detective Henry Palace has just discovered his ninth “hanger” of his short tenure with the Concord, New Hampshire, police force, in the bathroom of an ersatz McDonald’s:

“I’m staring at the insurance man and he’s staring at me, two cold gray eyes behind old-fashioned tortoiseshell frames, and I’m having this awful and inspiring feeling, like holy moly this is real, and I don’t know if I’m ready, I really don’t.”

Characters are thoroughly developed and believable; even likeable, and dialog aims consistently and comfortably true. Palace’s frequent “holy moly” harkens back to the innocence of the ‘40s,  Captain Marvel, and doing right even when no one is looking. Although everyone around the cop shop is satisfied with marking this down as another sad suicide, it doesn't sit right with Palace. He’s determined to find the murderer despite the ribbing and resistance he gets from his co-workers. And, of course, the plot continues to bubble, boil, and steadily thicken.

Details are gritty and unflinching, as when Palace observes the victim:

"I've had nine of these [hangers] in the three and a half months since I became a detective, and still I can't get used to it, to what death by asphyxiation does to a person's face: the eyes staring forward as if in horror, laced with thin red spiderwebs of blood; the tongue, rolled out and over to one side; the lips, inflated and purplish at the edges."

And Winters breathes life into his characters much like J.D. Robb breathes life into those in her Eve Dallas detective series; yet Winters’s characters seem so much more believable and approachable. These aren't over-the-top types at all; just good people doing their jobs because . . . it’s the right thing to do.

With men and women like these leading us into the chaos of the 21st Century, we might just have a chance. Godspeed, Hank Palace. We’re behind you all the way.


Ben H. Winters is the author of six novels, including The Last Policeman, an Best Book of July, 2012. His other books include Bedbugs, Android Karenina, the New York Times bestseller Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and the middle-grade novels The Mystery of the Everything and The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, a Bank Street Best Book of 2011 and an Edgar Award nominee. Ben is also the author of many plays and musicals for children and adults, and he has written for national and local publications including the Chicago Tribune, Slate, and the Huffington Post. 

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