Review: The Last Policeman by Ben Winters

July 30, 2014 Reviews 3 ★★★★

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters
Series: The Last Policeman # 1
Published by Quirk Books on July 10, 2012
Genres: Mystery/Thriller
Pages: 316
Format: Paperback
Source: Publisher
What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?

Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.

The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares.

The first in a trilogy, The Last Policeman offers a mystery set on the brink of an apocalypse. As Palace’s investigation plays out under the shadow of 2011GV1, we’re confronted by hard questions way beyond “whodunit.” What basis does civilization rest upon? What is life worth? What would any of us do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?

It’s impossible to read The Last Policeman and not think about what you would do in the event of an impending, doomsday-level asteroid strike on earth.  I have to admit that I find the idea exciting, in the same way that I find the ideas of a zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion exciting.  (Yeah, I’m weird like that.)  While I’ve read and watched my share of post-apocalyptic books and films, pre-apocalyptic stories seem to be a bit harder to find.  The first book that comes to mind is The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, which is about what happens when the speed of the Earth’s rotation begins to gradually slow down.  Answer – bad things.  As for films, we have the atrocious Armageddon, the somewhat better Deep Impact,  and the amazing Melancholia, which is on Netflix, if you haven’t seen it yet.  All three of those films depict versions of what happens in the last days leading up to an asteroid strike.

The Last Policeman explores this topic in more depth.  The world has about six months left, and Earth’s inhabitants, who may be the last ones left before humans go extinct, respond in very different ways.  Some flee their families to fulfill their bucket lists.  Some spend their days hoarding guns, food, and building shelters that will likely prove useless.  Some commit suicide.  Some resolve to carry on as normally as possible until the end.  This is where we find Hank Palace.

Hank is a newly promoted detective.  He was promoted out of necessity, since so much of the police force has abandoned their jobs.  Police departments around the country are not very interested in investigating crimes, focusing their attention instead on maintaining order.  When Hank comes upon what looks like one of the increasingly common suicides, it’s expected that he will rubber stamp it and move on to more important things.  But Hank sees some things that don’t fit a suicide.  Against the pressure and ridicule of his colleagues, he presses forward, determined to find out what happened to this man, even as Earth’s remaining days wind down.

Hank has a quiet thoughtfulness about his job.  His doggedness under any other circumstances would be admirable, but when humanity has only a few months left, I think it’s fair to ask: Does this one man’s death matter?  Perhaps even more important: Is Hank making the best use of his remaining days?  At times, Hank seems blind to the impending apocalypse.  I can kind of appreciate someone who goes about his life with a business as usual attitude, but at the same time, I can’t understand why he’s not out fulfilling his bucket list, like many of the other characters in the book.  But…even as I write that, I have to question whether the dead man deserves some sort of justice, if he was, in fact, murdered.

I love the questions The Last Policeman raises.  The mystery that runs throughout the book held my interest, but more compelling is to think about what I would do in this situation.  I might try to do some bucket list things, but I’d probably try to spend my remaining time with my family.  And I would definitely make time to finally read A Song of Ice and Fire. 🙂

Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


3 Responses to “Review: The Last Policeman by Ben Winters”

    • Stephanie

      When I read the first few pages, I realized I had started to read this when it first came out a few years ago. For whatever reason, I set it aside, but I’m glad I finally took a chance on it again!

  1. Pili

    You are right, postapocalyptic books abound but those about the time before or the time during or right after are quite more scarce! Glad to hear this was one of those and it was a great one at that! Will have to add this one to the wish list!

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