Ben H. Winter’s latest novel “The Last Policeman” plays with the popular genre of crime fiction and humanity’s inevitable curiosity about the end of the world. In this version, a young detective is faced with mounting apathy as he tries to solve crimes in the months before Earth’s unavoidable collision with a six-kilometer-wide asteroid called Maia.
Henry Palace, age 27, has always wanted to be a detective. He has finally achieved this goal, but now the world around him is falling apart. Last year, scientists announced the discovery of an asteroid that might hit Earth, and a few months ago, they confirmed that Earth has a 100 percent chance of impact, and everyone is going to die. Ever since then, people have started to get a little bit crazy.
Henry works in his hometown of Concord, N.H., which used to be a pretty quiet place. In fact, when Henry’s mother was killed less than 20 years ago, the odds of dying of unnatural causes in Concord were zero. This is no longer the case. Though Henry tells us the Midwest favors shotguns to the head as a means of suicide, Concord is decidedly a “hanger town.” It’s Detective Palace’s job to clean up the messes.
Although most everyone has stopped caring about maintaining law and order, Henry is determined to do the job he as always wanted to, in whatever time he has left. He latches on to the suspicious suicide of Peter Zell in a McDonald’s bathroom, and though everyone assures him this is a cut and dry suicide, Henry remains unconvinced. As he digs deeper into Zell’s background and his quiet existence, he feels more and more affinity for the lonely actuary, becoming increasingly hell-bent on solving this case. Between the case, his hippie sister, her deadbeat husband and his growing attraction to a woman from Peter Zell’s office, Henry certainly does not have time to “go Bucket List” like everyone else.
In the wake of last year’s “Melancholia” and “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” in movie theaters, one has to wonder: why the sudden spike in popular interest for apocalypse entertainment? Detective Palace is one of those characters who is so fixed in his thirst for justice that it becomes difficult to separate him from the idea of “justice” in the abstract. Usually in this kind of quick-paced, dry-humored police story, we get a tale of previous injustices inflicted or a dead wife to avenge. Instead, we have the level-headed Henry Palace, our guide through a world disturbingly similar to our own, but doomed. So maybe he’s no Dirty Harry, but that’s a story we’ve all heard before anyway. What’s lost in excitement is made up for in believability. Winters has stated that “The Last Policeman” is the first in a planned trilogy, so if nothing else, we haven’t seen the last of Henry Palace.