Novel * Ben Winters * Pre-Apocalypse Mystery * 2014
The Last Policeman was a novel I picked up on a whim nearly a year ago to supplement my already wide collection of books about the end of things. While it’s all well and good to revisit classics and to reread favorites with an eye toward the critical, it is important to me to also keep an eye out for new authors. And let me tell you something: apocalyptic fiction is like a whole thing. There’s too much to keep track of, most of it probably bad. Lucky for me, The Last Policeman turned out to be a refreshing, unique take on a ballooning genre. Winters wrote a murder mystery that only happened to be set against a looming cataclysm. Like any good mystery, that novel succeeded because Hank Palace was a worthy character/investigator. The backdrop of apocalypse only adds layers to an already intriguing story. Winters followed this up with Countdown City, which veered a little bit from the previous novel in that the apocalypse is closer, and Palace was further removed from his official vocation as a cop.
The final book of this trilogy, World of Trouble, brings everything to a final conclusion. While the first two novels were about Henry solving mysterious deaths or disappearances that had little or nothing to do with him, this final installment is about Palace solving a mystery that matters only to him. Maia, the asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth, is only a week away. Henry has left the relative safety and comfort that he found at the end of Countdown City in order to track down his errant sister, Nico. The first two novels featured Nico as a kind of secondary concern. There is plenty of backstory, we know that Nico and Henry are very different people but close for all of that. However, Nico’s actions have always been sort of the B plot. She’s been up to mysterious doings with a group of dipshit friends, and she’s convinced that these actions will save the world. Nico’s pretty sure there’s a conspiracy afoot, even though Hank (and the reader) have pretty well decided that’s real dumb.
The novel’s chief mystery, then, brings the B plot to the forefront, and World of Trouble is all about Henry getting to the bottom of what his wayward sister has been up to this whole time. Before I get into all of that, I’ll pause here to recommend this series if, like me, you had never heard of it before. Genre-blending aside, Henry Palace is a well written, intriguing character. Winters is a concise writer, and the books move quickly. Since these are mystery novels at heart, I would also recommend not reading past the break here, because I’m going to talk openly about the mystery, after which it will no longer be mysterious. I’m still unsure about how I feel about the ending, but as a whole these books are quite good. Now about how this all plays out….
World of Trouble picks up in Ohio, with Hank Palace on the road in an attempt to track down Nico, and paired up with the kinda goofy burgler Cortez, who we met in the previous novel. Cortez is the comic relief, and Winters doesn’t even bother to hide this fact. And that’s fine, because this dark final chapter could use some levity. Cortez has his practical uses, but mostly he’s just there to dunk on the painfully earnest Palace. Anyway, this final book is less about how Palace tracks down his sister than it is about what he does once he figures out where she is. As it happens, she and her crew of dummies have holed up in a bunker underneath a police station in some random town in Ohio. The entire middle section of the novel is Henry questing for a way to break into said bunker. It’s tempting to pass over this section and call it filler, but there’s a few things to cover real quick before we get to the real crux of the novel.
Henry has two primary encounters between when he leaves Cortez (and ‘Lily,’ but we’ll circle back to that whole mess) and when he returns. The first is with a couple of white trash heroes, where he enjoys some fried chicken and is tempted to ride out the end of the world in an awkward threesome situation. I only bring this up because I love the image of a couple burnouts enjoying the last week on earth by eating chicken, getting drunk, rocking out, and boning. Like, why stress it, man? Anyway, Palace leaves these two glorious dirtbags and ends up getting assaulted by a weirdo Amish dude and locked in a barn. This fucking guy has deluded his entire flock that there is no asteroid, and that the reason things are weird is because of a plague that has managed to leave them unharmed. Palace comes to understand the various peaceful ways of coping with imminent extinction. These people may be living a lie, but at least there is a sense of togetherness and family here.
Nevertheless, Hank has a mission, and that is to find his annoying little sister (who, for all her faults, is still kind of cool and has great taste in music) before the end of the world. Now, to circle back to the aforementioned Lily. Upon arriving back to the station, Hank makes an unsettling discovery, which that the gravely wounded young woman he left behind is now conscious. Now that she’s awake, she leads poor Hank to an even worse finding: his dead sister. Now, like Hank, most readers were probably quite exasperated with Nico. That’s rather the point, I think, considering this is all from his point of view. Finding Nico dead is rough. And here’s where the background oppression comes into play: none of this should matter, because everyone is going to be dead in a matter of days. But it does, because despite the rational conclusion that nothing human is of any importance after the extinction level asteroid hits, all we can do is revel in our own humanity and be ourselves.
So Henry does his fucking job. There is nothing else for him to live for. He left the last safe place to find his last remaining family, only to find her taken from him. So Henry works. He finally solves the great mystery, and it turns out that was always bullshit too. Like I said, this gets dark. All illusions are cast aside and all we’re left with is a great emptiness:
“Almost always, things are exactly as they appear. People are continually looking at the painful or boring parts of life with the half-hidden expectation that there is more going on beneath the surface, some deeper meaning that will eventually be unveiled; we’re waiting for the saving grace, the shocking reveal. But almost always things are just what they are, almost always there’s no glittering ore hidden under the dirt.
A massive asteroid really is coming and it will kill us all. That is a true fact, hard and cold and irreducible, a fact that can be neither diverted nor destroyed.
I was right, all along, in my pedantic obnoxious small-minded insistence that the truth was true – the simple brutal fact that I kept explaining to Nico, that I kept trying to use to corral her or cudgel her. I was always right and she was always wrong.”
The whole conspiracy mystery turns out to be a humbug. It’s a nonessential aside. A wet fart. Now that Hank has discovered the dull, pointless truth – that the conspiracy was just an FBI set-up to distract and divert a conman/cult leader – there’s nothing left. Nico died for nothing. Killed by a friend because she refused to kill herself. Whatever, it’s ultimately unimportant, which Hank discovers after getting his answers. Hank discovers, too late, that beliefs aren’t all that important when the shadow of certain doom hangs over everything. What he should have done was be with his sister. Let her believe whatever brought her peace, so long as it didn’t hurt anyone.
Yet even if he had done so, it would have only bought Nico another few days. Granted, these would have been better days – she would have at least been able to spend them with family. In the end, however, it would have only been a little longer, because Maia is real. When the end comes, Henry has returned to the Amish enclave where a peaceful group of people are living believing a lie. Hank, who has learned his bitter lesson, has done nothing to disillusion them (outside of one precocious girl who disillusioned herself). And when the final flash and fire come, Henry has at least found some peace in another human presence. Then the lights go out.