Novel * Ben H. Winters * Pre-Apocalyptic * 2012
What we have here is a murder mystery that follows Detective Hank Palace as he investigates a suspicious suicide that leads the detective into a bigger mystery. The procedural nature of the narrative is well thought out and fun to read, although I will go ahead and admit that I’m not big on the mystery genre. It’s disappointing, because I have a friendly brain when it comes to reading them. At no point does it pester the narrative at hand, trying to solve the mystery alongside the protagonist. Nah, my brain just goes with the flow, man. That way, unless the story is just really bad and obvious, I’m generally pleased and often surprised when the mystery unfolds. Anyway, this aspect of the novel is pretty well done, and while the Detective is something of an odd duck, he’s also pretty endearing and makes for a strong protagonist.
But we ain’t here to talk about mysteries. We’re here to talk about the end of the world, be it a slow decline and fall of human endeavors or an out of nowhere mass destruction of everything. The Last Policeman is of the latter variety. Maia, an extinction event asteroid, is locked into a collision course with Earth. There is six months until impact, and then bingo-bango, a very bad day occurs. The aforementioned murder mystery takes place within this timeframe, and this adds a unique quirk as to how the mystery unfolds and how the narrative as a whole plays out, which is to say under threat of an extinction level event. Winters does an exceptional job of meting out information about the asteroid, its inevitable impact, and the consequences within society as the time of impact inches forward. I love a well-paced story, and this is an outstanding example of how important pacing is. As the story moves along, various subplots arise alongside the central mystery, and in many aspects these plots tend to be more mysterious than the, at times, boilerplate murder investigation. Apparently this is a trilogy, because of course it is, but hey, it’s worth spreading out some of these ideas.
It’s pretty clear that the most important question being asked by the author is: what is our function? Deep, man. I suppose a better analytical statement would be: Winters is keenly interested in exploring the function of work and utility within human society. He uses an impending doomsday event as a specific lens to explore this with. The question posed is: if you know how and when your life will end, do you still try and add some value and worth to society as a whole? The answer according to life depicted in The Last Policeman is: kinda sometimes? There are various options presented over the course of the story. Obviously, our sympathetic protagonist makes the biggest impression. He’s doing his job, he’s thorough, he cares about doing his best, and has difficulty understanding those who haven’t come to the same conclusion. The Detective isn’t the only character in the novel, of course, so we are given a window through which to see other philosophies at work. First and foremost are the suicides. Those who go “nope, I’m out.” Secondly are the Bucket Listers, those with means who check out and spend their money doing all manner of nonsense. After those general groups are everyone else, who vary from addicts and hobos to those too terrified to interact with society. However, I think the most intriguing are those who are mostly hinted at throughout this first installment. Those lost souls who still have hope.
Hank Palace has a sister, and she’s one of these hopeful souls. We don’t see much of her as the murder investigation progresses. She’s young and Hank has little patience for her, it seems. You get a little backstory, but for the most part the protagonist sees her as an annoyance, something to be dealt with as quickly as possible so that he can get back to what’s important, which is to say, his job. The subplot that involves his sister is what I assume is going to be the overall plot of the trilogy. It caps the novel, even though I’m still unsure as to exactly what happens. Little sis seems to be involved with some shifty rebel types who figure the Feds are up to fishy business and are trying to get to the bottom of it. Hank doesn’t exactly care much, so we the readers get another, more esoteric mystery to wrestle with. The novel ends with Nico, who is all super spy obnoxious and seemingly in love with her role given how eager she is to repeat “I can’t tell you” to her own brother, explaining that she’s found a source of hope. Hank sees this as just another drug, essentially. Humanity is ill equipped to deal with the extinction of the species. Hopefully the next two novels elucidate how we go about trying.
One thing Nico does, however, is provide a counterpoint to our protagonist. She is someone who asks questions of her brother, even if she doesn’t articulate them particularly well. Not that she needs to. Her very presence, her activities, and her role in Hank’s life do enough to fill in some of the blanks provided by Hank’s narration. Many people are baffled by Hank’s determination to complete his investigation. However, their motive for questioning his behavior seems to be in the sky, nothing more than a myopic “why bother?” Nico is different, because Nico has hope. This hope may end up being a phantom, and her trust in whatever she’s involved in may be sadly misplaced, but it is strong. As such, Nico has purpose, much like her brother. What Nico asks without really asking is: if work serves no higher purpose, does it still matter? Yes, Hank solves his mystery and there is satisfaction in a completed job. Yet is the world a different place after all is said and done? Indeed it is. But is it a better place? Almost certainly not. And still Maia comes….