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.

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.