The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

I picked The Last Policeman entirely by chance while perusing science fiction titles. The cover caught my eye and the description convinced me that it was something I might enjoy. That’s what it takes isn’t it? And I have a fondness for science fiction mystery stories. I enjoy reading them almost as much as writing them.

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Henry Palace recently found himself promoted to detective after only 16 months on the job. The department made an exception in his case–it’s hard filling positions at the end of the world.

When Palace investigated the body of an apparent suicide–a ‘hanger’–in the bathroom of a McDonald’s it didn’t feel right. Questions about the scene bothered him. Despite the rash of suicides by strangulation in Concord, New Hampshire, was this really a suicide? It might be the end of the world, but Palace finally had his dream job. He wasn’t going to mess it up. Not if it’s the last thing he does.

In The Last Policeman Ben H. Winters writes a compelling story set in a recognizable near-future where a despondent world waits for the coming impact of a 6.5-kilometer in diameter carbon and silicates asteroid. The same unlikely scenario that was the death blow to dinosaurs is unfolding for humankind. Unlike our distant saurian cousins, we know that the asteroid is coming and how much time remains.

For some people, it’s a chance to finish a bucket list. For others, time to spend with family. Some people suicide, seeing little reason to go on.

Winters’ detective, Palace, investigates the death of Peter Zell, insurance man. Zell lived a mostly solitary life with work and infrequent contact with his sister. A bit of a geek, even before the news about the Maia asteroid he wouldn’t have been described as happy. He’d talked about suicide. He’d said that he’d do it at the McDonalds just as he was found.

What Would You Do?

Palace investigates what happened, doing his best to work through Zell’s life. Suicide or murder? Unwilling to accept the easy surface answer, Palace digs deeper into the case. He keeps going when others give up.

I’m reminded of Seeing a Friend for the End of the World. Like Winter’s book, the movie kicks off making it clear that an asteroid is going to wipe out everyone and there’s nothing that can be done about it. It also came out in 2012.

Winters does a much better job of world-building and showing through Palace’s experiences how people are handling the news. What would you do in that doomsday scenario? I don’t remember Winters mentioning the library, but I wonder if the library isn’t still open. Even now we have many people come to the library for internet access. In this story networks have begun to fail but I suspect that libraries and librarians would work to keep access for their patrons as long as possible. Would they be recreating card catalogs and resurrecting card pockets and date stamps? Or is that too much trouble if it is all going to end? I think many librarians, like Winters’ detective, would strive to keep the library doors open. How many more people would want access to books that they’d never had a chance to read?

As a writer myself, I could see spending time writing stories, a final novel, even if it was by hand on sheets of paper. Take away so much else and what are you going to do?

Palace works the case and the result is an engaging, sad, and compelling novel. The first in a trilogy of books. I’m looking forward to reading the others.

Highly recommended.