Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Last Policeman
Ben H. Winters
2012 Quirk Books

reviewed by carol
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

Imagine Spin (my review) crossed with The Manual of Detection (my review) and a suicide investigation. As interpreted by Kant.  What do I mean? Consider:

An asteroid is heading toward Earth. Fast and large, the power of its collision with Earth will cause an explosion “equaling the blast force of a thousand Hiroshimas,”  and the shock waves will cause tsunamis and earthquakes worldwide. Even worse, the resulting environmental destruction will cast a cloud cover over the world, obscuring the sun for years. After prolonged speculation, scientists discover the exact doomsday will be in six months, eleven days. Suddenly, humanity has an expiration date–if not from the disasters, then from starvation.  “Answer this, in your blue books, Professor Palace: what effect does it have on motive, all this information, all this unbearable imminence?”  What will your partner do? Children? Neighbors? The clerks at your grocery store? The plumbers? Doctors?

‘What about you, Dr. Fenton?’
‘Excuse me?’ She stops at the door, looks back.
‘Why haven’t you left, gone off to do whatever it is you’ve always wanted to do?’
Fenton tilts her head, looks at me like she’s not exactly sure she understands the question. ‘This is what I’ve always wanted to do.’

A number of people quit their current lives to chase their dreams, so many in fact, that its become known as ‘going Bucket List.’ Another portion of the population commits suicide. Henry Palace has been working for the Concord Police Department as a patrolman for sixteen months when he is unexpectedly promoted to Detective. Like Fenton, he is doing what he always wanted to do; although unlike Fenton, he’s woefully unprepared. When an apparent suicide is found at the local ‘pirate’ McDonalds (the franchise has disbanded), the rest of the department is ready to dismiss it as another doomsday suicide. Palace notices something odd about the scene, and doggedly persists in investigating as a homicide, even as the rest of the department dismisses his suspicions. 

Characterization is excellent.  Palace is interesting character but hardly exciting; methodical, stalwart, imperturbable–and young. He prefers to play a quiet, background role: “So I haven’t mentioned [my history] to a new person in years–don’t mention it as a rule–I am not a fan of people having opinions about the whole thing–not a fan, generally, of people having opinions about me at all.” What is fascinating about the characterization is how Palace accounts for the end-of-world mentality in investigating motive and action. Winters has hit upon the myriad of responses humanity will offer at both personal and international levels.  The plot is methodical, building on the investigation and the characters’ reactions.  It’s not a fast-moving mystery with large-scale, implausible drama; this is small-scale, human reaction of relatively normal people under extreme circumstances. 

Technically part of a trilogy, the mystery thankfully has a resolution, although questions remain in the larger arcs of the meteor and Palace’s future. The writing captures Palace’s thought process in rather straightforward, but appropriate, language. It is a nice compliment to the complicated philosophy surrounding each person’s actions. But the writing is not all doom-and-gloom and ethical conundrums. Palace has the dry humor of many police officers confronting humanity’s bizarre behavior:

He doesn’t remember. I stare at him, standing there, still smirking. It’s such a fine line with some people, whether they’re playing dumb or being dumb.

At the end, I wondered “was it worth it?” I’m not sure Palace answered–nor asked–that question, although I certainly did. And I wonder what I would do with only six months. This is the kind of book that asks questions without presenting clear-cut answers. I found I was vaguely unsettled once I realized where Winters was going–or not going–but I respect an author that encourages such complicated thinking. I’m curious to where the story goes next, so I’ll be looking for the next book.

cross posted from its permanent home at my blog: