By Marty Mulrooney
The Last Policeman is a science-fiction mystery novel by Ben H. Winters that poses one simple question: What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway? Published by Quirk Books, the story follows Detective Hank Palace as he tries to solve a potential murder in a pre-apocalyptic United States.
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.
The Last Policeman begins with a dead body in the toilet of a McDonald’s restaurant. An insurance man, Peter Zell, appears to have committed suicide. Around the world, people are finding new and inventive ways to kill themselves. In Hank Palace’s hometown of Concord, New Hampshire for example, it’s ‘hanger town’. Suicide sounds right for Peter Zell, black belt around his neck, bloodshot eyes staring dead ahead. Suicide fits. Hank Palace isn’t convinced.
The problem is, nobody really gives a damn anymore. Suicide, murder… what’s the difference? What does it matter? The world has become a drastically different place since the discovery of asteroid 2011GV1. There is no hope – only six months until impact. The economy collapses. The manufacturing, selling or purchasing of firearms in the United States of America is outlawed. Some people quit their jobs, write a ‘bucket list’. Others carry on like nothing has changed at all, in denial, or wishing to at least die within a facade of normalcy. Many people kill themselves. Detective Palace goes to work.
Waiting for the elevator I absorb the dark lobby: a giant potted plant, squat and heavy, guarding one corner; a lifeless White Mountains landscape above a row of brass mailboxes; the centenarian security man examining me from his perch. This, then, was my insurance man’s morning vista, where he started his professional existence, day in and day out. As the elevator door creaks open, I take a sniff of the musty air. Nothing arguing against the case for suicide, down here in the lobby.
Hank Palace was a patrol officer for sixteen months before being promoted – someone retired in the face of impending doom and he was fast-tracked to the detective unit as a result. To be exact, he was promoted to join what was left of the Concord Police Department’s division of Criminal Investigations, Adult-Crimes Unit: four guys in a room. Three and a half months into his new job and Detective Palace has already had nine suicides-by-hanging. Peter Zell could easily be classed as his tenth, but Palace doesn’t buy it.
The Last Policeman is written in the first-person from Detective Palace’s perspective. He’s a wonderful narrator – relatively fresh on the job but easily the most diligent man on the force. Hank Palace has waited his entire life to be made detective. It’s what he has always wanted to do, always wanted to become. The imminent end of all life on earth as we know it matters little to Palace – he has a job to do. What’s more, this is his first real case – up until now there has been a constant sense of disappointment, in both the job he’s always wanted, and himself. Now, everything has changed. Peter Zell was murdered and Detective Palace intends to prove it, societal disinterest and approaching apocalypse be damned.
I keep my mouth shut, keep driving, but this line of reasoning I do not like. He did it because everyone else is doing it? It’s like Dotseth is accusing the victim of something: cowardice perhaps, or mere faddishness, some color of weakness. Which, if in fact Peter Zell was murdered, murdered and dragged into a McDonald’s and left in that bathroom like meat, only adds insult to injury.
“I’ll tell you what,” says Dotseth genially. “We’ll call it an attempted murder.”
“It’s a suicide, but you’re attempting to make it a murder. Have a great day, Detective.”
The Last Policeman takes its high-concept premise and runs with it until it’s breathless. It’s part detective story, part mystery thriller, part science fiction tragedy, with more than a hint of romance, a sprinkle of dark comedy and a dash of investigative noir. The ticking clock of the rapidly approaching asteroid 2011GV1 and its effect on the world serve as a backdrop rather than the focus – as with all good science fiction, The Last Policeman uses its basic premise to scratch at much more difficult questions beneath the surface.
This is a genuinely engaging mystery novel that boldly asks us to consider what life is worth, and what truly defines us as individuals. The first in a planned trilogy, The Last Policeman not only presents a brilliant premise – it executes it to perfection, remaining able to surprise and delight until the very last page. Undoubtedly one of 2012’s greatest works of literary fiction, riding shotgun in Henry Palace’s department-issued Chevrolet Impala is a ride well worth taking.
10 OUT OF 10