By Marty Mulrooney
World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters is the third and final novel in the critically acclaimed Last Policeman trilogy. Following on from The Last Policeman (which Alternative Magazine Online described as “a genuinely engaging mystery novel that boldly asks us to consider what life is worth, and what truly defines us as individuals”), and Countdown City (“a sequel every bit the equal of its predecessor”), World of Trouble sees retired detective Hank Palace leaving the relative sanctuary of New England to track down his troubled sister Nico before it’s too late.
Above and behind the sink, bolted to the wall, is a horizontal rack hung with three knives. All of them are stained with blood, up and down, freckled from hilt and blade. A clot of dread and excitement forms in the base of my gut and floats like a bubble up into my throat. I swing around, move quickly now, heartbeat thrumming, back through the muster room and out into the hallway, and now the sun is all the way up outside, casting a muted ochre glow through the glass door and I can see the floor clearly, see where the trail of blood runs down the hallway.
In The Last Policeman there were 6 months until the deadly asteroid 2011GV1 would impact earth. In Countdown City, only 77 days remained. The 14 days left in World of Trouble is small change, and Hank Palace knows it. The good old bad days of driving around kicking ass (with his superior intellect) and taking names (in his blue lined notebooks), behind the wheel of his department-issued Chevrolet Impala, are long behind him now. With the apocalypse looming, he peddles on a bike with his sick dog Houdini coughing in the basket on the handlebars. His only human ally is his new sidekick Cortez, a man with ‘the jollity and fierceness of a pirate king’, who shot him in the head with an electric staple gun the first time they met.
America is a desolate shell of its former self, with all pretence of normalcy abandoned. Supplies are being taken by force, killed for and stockpiled by those hoping to ride out the impending collision with Earth. Cash is worthless, water is priceless. Nico Palace is missing, last seen in the company of suspicious radicals heavily armed and with outlandish plans to save humanity. Travelling from Massachusetts to Ohio, Hank’s investigation leads him to an abandoned police station that contains evidence of a brutal recent crime. There is also a freshly laid concrete slab in the garage next door, and a girl with her throat cut barely alive in the nearby woods. It’s time for the last policeman to embark on his final case.
I need to see her so badly that it is like a low rolling heat in my stomach, like the fire in the belly of a furnace, and it I don’t find her – if I don’t manage to see her, hug her, apologize for letting her go – then it will leap up and consume me.
Hank Palace has always been an enigma, somehow keeping his head as the world counts down while all those around him are losing theirs. His reasons for doing the selfless things he does have trickled through slowly with each successive book in the series, bleeding from between the lines printed upon each page. He’s a good man trying to do the right thing when it would be easier – and perhaps smarter, definitely safer – to start digging and simply hole up. This time it’s different. This time it’s personal. Ben H. Winters has consistently shown the relationship between Hank and Nico Palace to be extremely intricate and constantly tested, but their fondness for each other has always been readily apparent. Even as she chain-smokes and spews fantasy to Hank’s disapproval, he can’t look at her with anything that isn’t fast approaching love.
Ben H. Winters is by now the master of taking a high concept situation and boiling it down into an intimate drama, before unravelling a mystery so deeply satisfying that it proves plenty enough epic in its own unique way. World of Trouble is the darkest and least humorous book of the trilogy, but it needed to embrace the inherent sadness of the story as a whole to end everything so damn perfectly. These books have never been about the cases being solved, not really – they’ve been about Hank rising to the occasion both because and in spite of his foibles and ticks. With mere days to go before the end of everything as we know it, he finally focuses on what truly matters to him and pushes harder than he has ever done in his entire life. He cuts a tragic hero against a backdrop of despair.
Everywhere there are people praying, people reading to their children, people raising toasts or making love, desperately seeking pleasure or satisfaction in the last tissue-thin hours of existence. And here I am, here’s Palace, knee-deep in a pit of stone beside a stranger, digging and digging, tunnelling forward blindly like a mole into the next thing that comes.
World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters is the final masterpiece in a trilogy that deserves to be celebrated and remembered for successfully finding hope in a situation so utterly hopeless. It’s an unparalleled written symphony of the touching, gripping, shocking and true. The idea of Hank Palace in all likelihood never returning again to solve another mystery is almost too unbearable to think about. As a fascinating character study, a series of genuinely clever murder mysteries and a bittersweet tribute to humanity managing to remain aglow even when the lights go out, The Last Policeman trilogy is without peer.
10 OUT OF 10
World of Trouble: The Last Policeman Book III is out now from all good book shops.