By Marty Mulrooney
Countdown City by Ben H. Winters is the second novel in the critically acclaimed Last Policeman trilogy. Following on from The Last Policeman (which Alternative Magazine Online awarded Book of the Year 2012 and described as “a genuinely engaging mystery novel that boldly asks us to consider what life is worth, and what truly defines us as individuals”), Countdown City beings with just 77 days left before a deadly asteroid will collide with Earth. Detective Hank Palace is out of a job, but when a woman from his past begs him to track down her missing husband, he finds that old habits – unlike people – die hard…
I pluck a tissue from the box on her kitchen table and Martha takes it, smiles weakly, blows her nose. “I’m sorry,” she says, and honks again, and then she gathers herself, just a little, sits up straight and takes a breath. “But so Henry, you’re a policeman.”
Hank Palace is still a detective, regardless of the fact that the Concord police force is now operating under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department. Forced into extremely early retirement, he passes what days he has left doing the best he can for the struggling people around him. Martha Cavatone doesn’t need to beg him to find her missing husband – the moment she opens her mouth, tears streaming down her face, it’s a done deal. An act of kindness? No doubt. But it runs much deeper than that: Hank Palace has the blue blood of a true detective running through his veins – he doesn’t pass up a case, and he certainly doesn’t leave one unsolved.
The case of Brett Cavatone, who disappeared without a trace, isn’t – at least initially – a particularly compelling one. With the end of the world as we know it nigh, people going missing is an extremely commonplace occurrence and there isn’t a whole lot that can be done to track them down. Computers are offline and the phone lines are down, the police don’t care (they’re far too busy claiming first dibbs on supplies) and the truth is, most missing people have simply gone ‘bucket list’ and don’t want to be found anyway. The idea of trying to track someone down against this backdrop of looming and quite frankly confusing Armageddon is therefore pretty ridiculous, but Hank Palace apparently didn’t get the memo.
I want her to give up whatever fantasies are driving her actions at this point and come stay where I can see her. I want to scream at her that for God’s sake she is all I have left, she’s the only person still living that I have a claim on, and her poor decision-making makes me depressed and furious in equal measure.
“Hen?” says Nico, dragging on her cigarette and blowing the smoke out her nose.
I don’t say any of those things. I smile.
“Nico,” I say. “I need your help.”
What starts as a simple case gets complicated fast. From the longest thirty-five second elevator ride ever (involving a staple gun pushed against his temple), to a college campus full of anarchists known as the ‘Free Republic of New Hampshire’, Hank chooses to latch onto one extremely difficult but potentially solvable problem, rather than focus on the terrifying eventuality looming above his and everyone else’s head as the days, hours, minutes and seconds count down. In many ways he’s the opposite of his troubled sister Nico, who is convinced that there is a solution to the problem of asteroid 2011GV1. No matter how crazy she sounds, it has to be said: she’s every bit as headstrong and determined as her brother.
Ben H. Winters once again uses a pre-apocalyptic United States as a backdrop rather than the main focus. As Hank continues to wake up, put on his suit and ‘go to work’ every day, it’s the little things that hint at the world precariously teetering on the brink of doom – the extinction of coffee, the lack of electricity and swapping his department-issued Chevrolet Impala for a bicycle. As both the clues and the steady beats of the narrative click into place, a story is woven that becomes surprisingly personal and touching, whether Hank is interacting with a suspect, his sister or his adopted dog Houdini. Hank Palace is a wonderful protagonist and a truly memorable hero – he works within his means and beyond his years. He feels capable and vulnerable all at once, in equal measure. It’s a dizzying mix that makes his every move feel as weighted and important as the epic science fiction backdrop.
“Yes, but…” But what, Officer Palace? But what? “We were sworn in once, you and I. Right? As officers of the law. We still have an obligation to do what’s lawful and what’s right.”
He shakes his head sadly. “Those two things you said there, friend. Those are two different things.”
It’s not unusual for the middle instalment of a trilogy to sag, but Countdown City positively soars. At the very core of this book is a mystery that satisfies even as it continues to raise new questions, questions about the nature of mankind and what civilisation actually stands for when the world is faced with almost certain annihilation. Ben H. Winter writes with a sharp, darkly humorous grace that not only brings Hank Palace to life in all his understated glory, but also the changing world around him and the people – both good and bad – who cross his path.
The Last Policeman was one of 2012’s very best books. Guess what? In 2013, Countdown City offers a sequel every bit the equal of its predecessor, with an ending that leaves no doubt that the final book will be similarly thought-provoking, emotional and gripping. In reality, there isn’t an asteroid heading toward Earth – fingers crossed – but you could certainly make the argument that missing out on this book would be the end of the world.
10 OUT OF 10
Countdown City: The Last Policeman II is due for release on the 16th July 2013 from all good book shops.