Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review of The Last Policeman by Ben Winters

Winters, B. (2012).  The Last Policeman.  Philadelphia, PA:  Quirk Books.

What would you do if you knew that the world was going to end in six months?   This is the question at the center of The Last Policeman, the first mystery in a promised trilogy and winner of the 2013 Edgar Award.

The world has found out that a devastatingly large asteroid-scientifically known as 2011 GV1 but nicknamed Maia, is scheduled to collide with Earth and cause global loss of life.  In America, the economy quickly falls to pieces as employees and even CEOs walk off the job, determined to carry out their bucket lists and spend their remaining time with family and friends.  Some turn to religion to find solace and even more turn to substance abuse.  Drug use skyrockets so much that the government decriminalizes marijuana in an effort to deter people from turning to harder drugs.  The suicide rate climbs exponentially.

In the middle of it all is Detective Hank Palace, one of only four remaining members of the Adult Crimes Division in the Concord Police Department in New Hampshire.  Palace has only been on the force for little over a year when his promotion to detective is precipitated by the retirement-and in one case,disappearance, of his senior officers.  Most police officers, including Palace's team members, are only half-heartedly investigating crimes and the government has ruled that law enforcement agencies no longer investigate apparent suicides, for obvious reasons.  Hank Palace is the youngest member of his division and the only one that still takes his job seriously, provoking good-natured teasing from his colleagues.

The teasing is escalated when Palace is called in on what should be an open-and-shut suicide case- an insurance worker named Peter Zell who apparently hung himself in a McDonald's bathroom.  Palace can't shake the feeling that there's more to the story than meets the eye, and proceeds with investigating the case with noncommittal approval from his superiors.

As Palace investigates dead-ends and wrong turns, he must also deal with his personal issues, namely an erratic younger sister and her missing husband, as well as his personal nightmares.  Despite these obstacles, Palace perseveres, taking his job seriously and doing his best to maintain high standards and professionalism at work while the world crumbles around him.

The Last Policeman raises important questions about morality and humanity.  What does being human mean?  How important are relationships, law and order, and basic decency, in the face of apocalypse?  Palace believes in doing his job to the best of his abilities and not slacking, despite the fact that in six months, none of it will matter anyway.

Most of the apocalyptic novels that I have read deal with the actual disaster and its aftermath as people survive and begin to rebuild.  The Last Policeman is different in that it deals with the period leading up to apocalypse and how the human spirit is tested, broken, and in some cases, made stronger in the face of impending doom.  These questions become as important as the murder mystery that Palace is trying to solve and works in tandem with his investigation to create a worthy read that is most deserving of the awards and praise that it has received.

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