Review: Ben H Winters – The Last Policeman

Ever since I read Neville Shute’s disturbing book On the Beach as a teenager, I’ve largely avoided apocalyptic fiction. However Ben H Winter’s latest book, The Last Policeman has been garnering some decent reviews and it has an intriguing plot. It has as its central character a detective who is trying to hunt down a murderer while the rest of the world implodes in the knowledge that the planet is about to be catastrophically hit by an asteroid. It was a very unusual read, but I think that the writer has created a series that has plenty of mileage in it, despite the approaching fictional apocalypse!

Detective Hank Palace has been promoted as a detective in the police department of Concord, New Hampshire. The place has become a ‘hanger’ town, where scores of residents have been committing suicide due to the forthcoming destruction of the planet by an asteroid. The date of impact has been estimated by astrophysicists as taking place in six months time. Most police personnel are, like the rest of the population, too stupefied by the thought of death to do their jobs with any enthusiasm, but when Hank discovers a suicide that he is convinced was in fact murdered, he is determined to find the killer. He meets in the course of his investigation people like him who have decided to continue to do their jobs to the best of their ability, while others are passively waiting for the end to come, or worse, attempting to take advantage of the situation.

The book started with an interesting idea, but it takes an author of skill to keep the tension going once the reader has accepted the central plot premise. I thought Winters did a very good job of keeping the reader interested in the impending collision of the asteroid. We were given enough information about the run up to the realisation that a catastrophic event was about to occur and how scientists failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation. This was partly done through the murder investigation, as the victim had been monitoring the course of the asteroid himself and so the killing plays an important role not only developing the plot but also giving the reader essential information about the apocalypse.

The characterisation, on the whole was very good and Hank Palace is an interesting mix of naivety and charisma as he attempts to negotiate his way through a pre-apocalyptic American city. His honesty and dedication shine through a world that is gradually descending into chaos and the technological infrastructure developed over the last twenty years – the internet, mobile phones- begins to disintegrate.

There are some tantalising clues in the narrative hinting that the impending collision might not be all that it seems and it will be interesting to see how the trilogy develops. I’ll certainly be reading future books.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher. The book has also been reviewed by The Puzzle Doctor.

22 thoughts on “Review: Ben H Winters – The Last Policeman

  1. Sarah – Oh, I’ve been reading some good reviews of this one too, and was hoping you would like it. Like you I don’t generally go for apocalyptic fiction but this one has gotten my attention. I’m especially drawn in by what seems like a fascinating contrast between the steadiness, if I can call it that, of Palace’s character and the impending chaos of the outside world. Your excellent review has made me all the more intrigued about this novel, so thanks.

    • Thanks Margot. It was an unexpected read for me but I enjoyed it and certainly would read more in the series. The author had developed an intriguing concept.

  2. This sounds very interesting. I enjoyed Nevil Shute’s books very much when I was young. I don’t usually read “end of the world” style books, but I read two rather good ones a couple of years ago by Alex Scarrow (brother of the historical novelist Simon Scarrow) – Last Light, about what happens in Britain after “peak oil”, and After Light, set 10 years later in a devastated landscape, and which I think is better than the first one, though they are both very good. http://petronatwo.wordpress.com/2010/02/23/alphabet-in-crime-fiction-last-light-by-alex-scarrow/ and http://petronatwo.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/book-review-afterlight-by-alex-scarrow/ .

  3. This sounds really great – I am a fan of post-apocalyptic settings in general but can’t think of too many pre-apocalyptic novels so will definitely be picking up a copy of this. I really like the idea of the detective going about his precise and methodical work while the world falls to pieces around him. I’ve also just noticed that you’ve added my blog to your ‘recommended’ sidebar, thank you!

    • No problem about the link Marie. I’m enjoying the blog v much. I hope you like the book – if you like this genre I think the crime element adds an interesting flavour.

  4. Thanks for giving LAST LIGHT and AFTERLIGHT a mention Maxine. They were both, particularly the latter, inspired very much by Shute’s ON THE BEACH – one of my all time favourite novels.

    kind regards

    Alex Scarrow

  5. Sarah, thanks so much for this review, and you won’t be surprised to hear that On the Beach was heavily on my mind as I wrote this. In fact, I had never read it but it was one of my wife’s favorites, and when I explained to her my idea — for a crime novel set at the end of time — she insisted I read it immediately. In particular, I admire Shute’s evocation of the emotional state of his protagonists in such an odd, odd time, and I hope I’ve come close to something similar.

    • Hello Ben, thanks for dropping by and leaving your comments. I’m always fascinated by an author’s influences and it’s interesting that you read Neville Shute before writing this. It’s years since I read ‘On the Beach’ but I can recall some of the scenes vividly.
      As you can see from the review, I enjoyed ‘The Last Policeman’ and am looking forward to its follow-up.

  6. I saw that this review came out while I was in Alabama, but my mother’s computer was so difficult I have just gotten around to reading it (home now). My husband also pointed out this book to me while I was gone. I am glad you liked it because it sounds like an interesting premise, if it is well done. Your review was interesting with just the right amount of information. Thanks.

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