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.