Countdown City – Ben H. Winters

UnknownTwo books into his pre-apocalyptic Last Policeman trilogy and Ben Winters really hits his stride with Countdown City.

The blurb is incoming:

There are just 77 days before a deadly asteroid collides with Earth, and Detective Palace is out of a job. With the Concord police force operating under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department, Hank’s days of solving crimes are over… until a woman from his past begs for help finding her missing husband.

Brett Cavatone disappeared without a trace—an easy feat in a world with no phones, no cars, and no way to tell whether someone’s gone “bucket list” or just gone. With society falling to shambles, Hank pieces together what few clues he can, on a search that leads him from a college-campus-turned-anarchist-encampment to a crumbling coastal landscape where anti-immigrant militia fend off “impact zone” refugees.

Countdown City presents another fascinating mystery set on brink of an apocalypse–and once again, Hank Palace confronts questions way beyond “whodunit.” What do we as human beings owe to one another? And what does it mean to be civilized when civilization is collapsing all around you?

Countdown City feels like a more fully-realised piece of work than its predecessor, The Last Policeman, perhaps because there’s a definite sense of a ticking-clock as the world winds down. With just three months to go before the asteroid Maia hits the earth, and with the civilised world in freefall, former cop Henry Palace agrees to search for the missing husband of his former babysitter.

But how do you find somebody when the whole world is choosing to go missing? Spouses, lovers, friends and family are disappearing in their thousands, off to complete their bucket lists or to fruitlessly search for somewhere safe to see out the end of the world.

Palace meets conspiracy nuts and dangerous survivalists and desperate people at every turn, but he keeps searching, compelled to do the right thing, his loyal bichon frize at his side.

What I love about Countdown City, and about The Last Policeman, is that Hank Palace is such an improbably straight arrow. As the world goes to hell in a handcart around him –  lawlessness and chaos really begin to take hold on society in this second instalment – Palace keeps his head by doing his job.

It would have been easy for Winters to drop us in the middle of pre-apocalyptic darkness with some noir tough guy, and ramp up the violence and anarchy, but Palace is a genuinely likeable Everyman, a lonely guy estranged from his damaged sister, striding purposefully down lawless streets in a suit and tie, while the world burns.

Off-page, some terrible things are happening as the US-government takes extreme measures to cope with the shiploads of refugees turning up off the East Coast. The encroaching darkness that pervades the book is made shockingly explicit in the second-half, but despite life-threatening injuries Palace just keeps going, hanging on to those old certainties for as long as he can, and his stubbornness in the face of the disintegration all around him is haunting and genuinely affecting.

Winters is the go-to guy for genre mash-ups, and he doesn’t let the apocalyptic aspects of the book swamp the central mystery. Countdown City is a satisfying crime drama, an emotional ride, and an extraordinary imaginative leap into a world on the edge of extinction.

There’s still unfinished business for Hank Palace before the end of the world – the last in the trilogy awaits. Countdown City is a deadpan joy, and as I’ve said before, the premise is touched with genius.  You can see my review of The Last Policeman here.

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One thought on “Countdown City – Ben H. Winters

  1. Pingback: Apocalypse Noir – Lynn Reynolds - Author

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