If you know Ben Winters' name, it's probably from his books like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Android Karenina, or his supernatural thriller about bedbugs, Bedbugs. So you might not expect an insightfully drawn portrait about a police officer living in a world on the edge of the apocalypse. Or at least you might expect it to be a fun apocalypse of giant spiders, alien invaders or ancient evil. Instead The Last Policeman takes place just before an extinction-level sized asteroid slams into earth.
Hank Palace is a rookie detective in Concord, New Hampshire, something he has wanted to be since he was twelve. Which means he's still there, when so many others have "bucket-listed," leaving their jobs for whatever they really wanted to do. There's six months until the asteroid hits, but the world is grinding to a halt regardless of the price controls and near martial law that the government hopes will keep civilization together: construction has stopped, the commercial internet is down, cell service is spotty, records aren't being kept, people are committing suicide.
When Hank is assigned the suicide of an insurance actuary, he is convinced it is, in fact, a murder. His colleagues think that Hank is trying to manufacture a murder investigation. Proving it's a murder is important to Hank both professionally and personally. And there are moments when the audience has to wonder if the colleagues aren't right. The writing is clipped and almost airless -– there are no Chandlerian metaphors here. Hank is a man of habit with strong likes and dislikes. It becomes apparent that Hank's odder behaviors are psychic armor against a world as off-kilter and subtly broken as the one in the book.
Winters plays around with plenty of tropes of the cop/mystery genre. Hank, like so many fictional cops, is a rule breaker. Not because he wants to –- if anything, he wants to be by the book – but because the system is broken. Not in a "we can't catch bad guys because we're following stupid procedure" way, but in a "we can't run basic tests" kind of way. The damaged girl Hank wants to help, but doesn't really trust, isn't some femme fatale, but his sister. Luckily, there's a lost love and a woman in a red dress around as well.
The book is infused with a sense of finality. This might be Hank's first murder case, but it's definitely his last. Hank knows, at some level, that it doesn't matter if he solves the crime or not. In a few months millions of people will be dead from the impact and soon everyone else will probably die from the massive climate change. Hank is not doing his job for justice or for public safety. He is propelled by a sense of duty that is as inexorable as the asteroid's path.
Winters makes a few missteps, mostly slipping in unnecessary absurdities. Hank's father's name is Temple Palace, which sounds like a name Nick Harkaway might have considered, and discarded, for Angelmaker. It's also the first book in a trilogy, which is unfortunate. As it stands, the ending is just as strange and ambiguous as the rest of the story. The chances that another two books could improve on Hank's story seem slim.
I haven't had to defend my love for science fiction in quite a while, but when I do, I point to books like The Last Policeman. These books explore human emotions and relationships through situations that would be impossible (or worse yet, metaphorical) in literary fiction. This is a book that asks big questions about civilization, community, desperation and hope. But it doesn't provide big, pat answers. Rather there are just a collection of individual motivations. People keep civilization going because they have nothing better to do, because of their religion, because they're finally doing what they always wanted to, because they have hope, because they have no hope. And people drop out of civilization because they always wanted to paint, because there are only so many days left with their family, because there's a party in New Orleans, because the asteroid is a great excuse, because dying is easier.
Even with all the big questions, it's not a big story, there are no super heroes are mad plans to save us all. It's a small story, just a handful of lives and deaths in a small city, that reminds us that the end of the world won't be all that different from the days that come before it.