Ben H. Winters: The Last Policeman

Oct 28, 2015

Like many sci-fi and fantasy books I read, I heard about The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters on The Incomparable (episode 225). I’ve read the book in Czech translation: I usually don’t do this because very few genre books get a lot of translator’s attention and English sentence structure and wording still leaks through Czech words. It’s not always the case and some translation are even excellent, eg. Existence. I can’t go as far with The Last Policeman but the text was translated well and the language didn’t take me out of the atmosphere.

The Last Policeman is a detective story taking place in unusual circumstances: the Earth is going to be hit by an asteroid, the date has been calculated and is just a few months off. Hank Palace, only recently promoted to a detective, is called to an apparent suicide at McDonald’s. While suicide by hanging is the most common event he has to deal with in the world awaiting its apocalypse, something is off with this one and Palace needs to find the truth. We follow him on his quest of looking for a killer of a suicide victim in a world where everyone has at most months to live.

** Spoilers ahead **

The man was a solitude insurance actuary without friends or close ties to his family who despite his outward disinterest in the impeding doom was moved to dramatic life changes which eventually led to his murder. Based on a calculation of risks and possible outcomes, he decided to go into drugs which under the almost-martial-law regime became highly illegal by the virtue of any prison sentence being a life sentence. Winters’ mission is solitude and singular. Where many people quit their jobs and pursue their life-long dreams, others give in to depression or devote themselves to religion, he’s achieved his dream of becoming a detective and he wants to be a good one. His devotion to truth and police work is reminiscent of Nick Angel from Hot Fuzz, but where Angel’s unlimited devotion to the police procedures is a matter of ridicule and disdain which eventually leads to absurd humor, Palace’s pursuit is a fulfillment of his dream and a meditation on being human: he clings to normalcy in the middle of chaos, he pursues justice for a single man before the apocalypse, because that’s how civilisation works. His investigation turns lives of many people upside down and worsens their last few months of life. While some reviewers were appalled and disgusted by this insistence on rules, I found it depressing, admirable and thrilling at the same time.

** Spoilers above **

Winters has a great style which conveys the atmosphere of impeding doom. Not just by the bleak scenery and people losing hope but also by providing answers to questions the reader comes up: suicides must sky rocket! what about crimes? who goes to work and why? how does everything work when no one works? Everything has been thought about and gets explained which makes the world feel much more real.

The Last Policeman is a first novel in a trilogy. All three books have been published and I’ll definitely read the others to learn how the apocalypse evolves. By some accounts, it totally pays of, everything is plotted out and the whole trilogy is more than just three novels with the same character in a series. If you’re not afraid of an asteroid, go ahead and read it!