Saturday, October 5, 2013

Review of Countdown City by Ben Winters

Winters, B. (2013). Countdown City. Philadelphia: Quirk Books.

Countdown City is the much anticipated sequel to The Last Policeman and the second book in the trilogy.  Readers are once again transported to the pre-apocalyptic world of Hank Palace as he and those around him struggle to hold onto the last remaining pieces of civilization in the face of impending doom.

At the end of The Last Policeman, Hank solved his case determining the true cause of death of Peter Zell and inherited a dog named Houdini in the process.  Hank suffered two significant losses- the official end of his job when the Concord (New Hampshire) Police Department is taken over by the feds, and the murder of the woman he loved, Naomi.

Countdown City picks up with 77 days left until the predicted impact of Maia, the enormous asteroid that will obliterate most, if not all life on Earth.  Conditions are rapidly deteriorating.  The electricity is gone.  Most businesses are closed, and food is becoming scarce.  Palace and two of his police buddies meet at a diner each day for lunch where they are served the only things left on the menu, hot tea and oatmeal.  Citizens are responding to the impending doomsday in a variety of ways:  some have committed suicide, many have disappeared to fulfill their 'bucket list' wishes, while others are hoarding supplies, taking weapons training, and preparing for slim chances of surviving the catastrophe.  Many children have been abandoned by their parents and have taken shelter in a local elementary school, where they sleep outside and play aimlessly.  Hank has taken an interest in two of the children-a brother and sister, and keeps tabs on them when possible.  Perhaps even more saddening, are the large numbers of boats filled with desperate refugees fleeing the impact zone of the asteroid but who are often forcibly turned away by the U.S. Coast Guard.  In the midst of it all, Hank finds himself once again working a case, this time, the disappearance of Brett Cavatone, husband of Hank and his sister Nico's childhood babysitter.  Hank had a bitter disagreement with Nico and they parted ways in the first book, but their paths cross again in Countdown City, both because she becomes helpful in his quest to find Brett, but mostly because of a childhood promise that he made to her that he would never leave her.  The brother and sister's love/hate relationship provides an interesting backdrop to the heightening mystery surrounding Brett Cavatone's disappearance, culminating in a series of events that literally mean life or death for Hank.

Ben H.Winters grew up in Maryland and attended college at Washington University in St. Louis.  He has worked as a journalist and a playwright and has written seven novels.  The Last Policeman won a 2012 Edgar Award.

Countdown City continues Winter's spare, elegant prose as he delves into the life of a detective who struggles to make sense of a world that has fallen apart and maintain some semblance of decency and civility even when it seems hopeless to do so.  Everywhere he goes, Hank is asked "why"?  Why is he so doggedly pursuing cases, trying to solve crimes, looking for a missing person in a world full of people who have gone missing?  Winters manages to achieve the fine balance between making a philosophical point without being preachy.  He shows readers that Hank continues to solve cases for the same reason that he and his police friends meet for lunch each day, for the same reason that Ruth-Ann continues to serve them determinedly from her dwindling menu, for the same reason that Micah-the little boy who sleeps in the elementary playground with his sister, hangs on to his samurai sword-because even in the face of almost certain doom, the human will to survive is one of the strongest forces on the planet. Hank made a promise to solve the case. Ruth-Ann made a promise to serve her customers.  Their fragile world is held together by the slender bonds of these promises-none of which they are bound to keep in the face of such damning odds, but which they keep nonetheless, lest they give up and their souls die of despair before their bodies physically perish.

Winters invites readers to submit short essays to his Quirk Books page answering the question, "What would you do with just 77 days until the end of the world?" What would you do? Please comment below!

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