Review: Ben H Winters – World of Trouble

A trilogy can be a powerful self-contained series if done well. There are plenty of examples in crime fiction including Peter May’s World of TroubleLewis books which have been reviewed on this blog. It’s also a useful publishing device. If you read the first book in what you know is going to be a trilogy, you are likely to want to read the rest of the series if you have engaged with the characters and setting. This has never been more so the case with Ben H WInter’s Last Policeman books set in a world where an asteroid is due to crash into Earth with catastrophic consequences.

In World of Trouble, there are now six days left until the day of reckoning. US society has fractured to the extent that the violence that characterised earlier months has now morphed to an uneasy wait for the October day that the asteroid is due to hit. Former policeman Hank Palace, sitting in a safe house with colleagues from the Concord Police Department, embarks on a final mission to find his sister, Nico. She is part of a group of people who believe that they have a practical solution to stop the asteroid hitting the planet. But Hank senses that his sister is in trouble and makes the long journey to warn and protect her.

The most successful aspect of Winters’ trilogy has been his unflinching look at violence and the effects on his protagonists. In the first book, The Last Policeman, Hank’s girlfriend is killed which is a shock to reader and unsettles the narrative to create an uneasy read. To be able to develop this tension in the context of a society that is about to end is no mean feat. As the final reckoning approaches we, as readers, race along with Hank to discover if the asteroid will indeed destroy the world.

The problem with writing is a trilogy is that each book feeds into the next and I’m not sure the extent to which World of Trouble works as a standalone novel. For fans of Winter’s writing this isn’t a problem and is a fitting ending to an unusual series. I’ve noticed that a couple of reviews give horrendous spoilers for the end of this book. I hope you don’t read them but instead luxuriate in the writing and plot of this excellent trilogy.

Thanks to Sam at PGUK for my review copy.

Review: Louise Welsh – A Lovely Way to Burn

A Lovely Way to BurnLouise Welsh, a talented writer of standalone psychological thrillers, has written the first book in the Plague Times trilogy. The series is set in a dystopian near future in the grip of a virus similar to the bubonic plague. The narrative opens with the unexplained death of a dedicated but hedonistic young doctor but soon chronicles the collapse of London society as the epidemic sweeps across the city.

Stevie Flint is a former journalist turned shopping channel TV presenter. When she is stood up by her boyfriend, Simon, she assumes he’s no longer interested in her. However, she later finds his body in his flat, his death apparently the result of natural causes. London is in the grip of an epidemic that is initially assumed to be flu but spreads with a ferocity and virulence that causes widespread panic in the city. When Stevie receives a note from Simon asking her to deliver a briefcase to a colleague, she is plunged into a world of medical secrets that people are prepared to kill in order to protect. Stevie is one of the first to contract the disease and her survival, while others are succumbing to the epidemic, makes her an object of fascination to those looking for a cure.

This is the third apocalyptic crime novel I’ve read in a year. In Ben H Winters’ Countdown City, the US is in the grip of asteroid paranoia as they feverishly await the destruction of the world by an object from space while in Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer extreme climate change has brought about an equally lawless society. What differentiates Louise Welsh’s book is that it opens when everything appears to be normal. Admittedly, people are sneezing on the London underground and sickness absence is rising in the workplace but it takes a while for the epidemic to take hold. This allows the death of Dr Simon Sharkey to take centre place in the narrative and for us to see Stevie’s character develop from a happy-go-lucky TV presenter to a determined avenger of his death.

The scenes involving the reaction to the spread of the virus are horribly realistic. People’s actions range from the altruistic to determinedly self protectionist and as Stevie is seen as the key to surviving the illness she in turn becomes the hunted. As I’d expect with this setting, there are some heart-wrenching moments and one character in particular I was gutted to see die. But given that this book is the first in a trilogy, I’m sure there will be plenty of new characters to take its place.

The book isn’t out until the 20th March but a mixture of Welsh’s writing style and the subject matter made it impossible to resist. Thanks to Hodder for my review copy.

Review: Ben H Winters – Countdown City

Ben H Winters’ The Last Policeman was in my top 5 books of 2012. I found it a fascinating read with an unusual premise: a diligent CountdownCitypoliceman who investigates a murder despite the imminent end of the world. Countdown City takes up the narrative three months before the day that the meteor is due to hit the planet. Hank Palace has now left the Concord Police Department as the work has dried up and investigators are only cursorily trying to solve crimes. He is hired by a businessman to find his missing son-in-law although it soon becomes apparent that the man’s disappearance might not have been involuntary. However, as US society disintegrates around him, the quest for the missing man takes on a wider search for what it means to be a human being when the essence of society is crumbling around you.

The Last Policeman justifiably won an Edgar award for its high quality writing and unusual plot. Countdown City continues very much in the same vein although the narrative has moved forward by three months and US society is patrolled by vigilantes and armed gangs. The extent to which structures that hold together a place can quickly disintegrate is shocking and although has been well documented in films, hasn’t really been covered in crime fiction. Hank Palace, an honest policeman in a shaky world, is true to the character we encountered in the first book. As well as being practical, he is also a romantic at heart and has to make some difficult choices when the reasons for the man’s disappearance emerges.

The hints we got in book one that all might not be as it seems with the approaching meteor wasn’t really explored in this novel and I suspect will be left for the final part of the trilogy. I have a feeling that three books will be perfect for the series. Countdown City is another strong read but I found myself becoming increasingly impatient to know what happens in the final days before the meteor hits. Fingers crossed that all will be revealed in the last book.

Thanks to the publishers, Quirk Books, for sending me a review copy.