The Last Policeman – Ben H. Winters

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Do you write police procedurals, and if so, where’s your copper’s precinct? Is it Bath, Manchester, Cricklewood? I only ask because in The Last Policeman, Ben Winters has come up with a corker of a location – his detective, Henry Palace, solves crime at the end of the world.

Palace works with the Concord Police Department. Concord is a pretty unexeceptional place, but now it’s just like everywhere else. Because in a few short months Concord, like nearly other  village, town and city on Earth, is going to be wiped off the map with the arrival of 2011GV1, a giant asteroid, otherwise known as Maia.

Maia is an imminent extinction event. In a few short months half the world’s population will be wiped out immediately, and the other half will die a slow death from the resulting ash cloud and drop in global temperatures.  As a result, people are killing themselves in droves. So when detective Palace suspects that one such suicide is not what it seems nobody, with the exception of Palace really gives a fig.

But what’s interesting about Henry is that he’s an average policeman who’s fulfilled his lifetime ambition to be a detective because some many others have quit the force to spend their last months on earth with their families or ticking off items on their bucket list. Palace, with his dogged and precise ways, is the right man for the right time – while everyone else around him is giving up, Palace is tenacious.

The Last Policeman is a clever twist on the detective novel. It’s a haunting book, and pretty bleak and deadpan funny in equal measure. Palace is the calm voice at the centre of an increasingly hysterical world. While everyone else falls apart, he keeps plodding on, knowing essentially that he needs his job, now more than ever..

Winters is the guy who wrote the literary mash-up Sense And Sensibility and Sea Monsters, but The Last Policeman feels very grounded in the way it portrays its science and an increasingly chaotic world, by turns subdued and panicking. The narrative includes a ticking clock within a ticking clock, a countdown to a press conference – one last apocalyptic box to be ticked – in which scientists will reveal the probable date and location of Maia’s impact with the world, will smash into the earth, causing worldwide devastation.

The Last Policeman is the first in a planned trilogy, and the next book Coundown City is coming out in July. I plan on reading the next two books even though I know – or I think I know – how it’s all going to end.

What I liked: At the heart of The Last Policeman is a question, what’s the point of doing the right thing when you know that the world is going to end? Winters sets about trying to answer that question by the actions of his protagonist, Henry Palace. I think all the best crime thriller novels, the ones that resonate with me at least, have a question embedded inside of them – how far would you go to protect your kids? How would you live with the consequences of murder? – which gives the novel a shape, and allows the author to explore a theme.

So what’s the question at the heart of your novel?

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