Review: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
I was asked the other day (at the SFWA reading) how I find new science fiction books to read. I answered: in the case of A Stranger in Olondria it was the The Coode Street Podcast. There are other podcasts. The Writer and the Critic and Adventures in SciFi Publishing are just 2 examples which have turned me on to plenty of great books. I get recommendations from the big blogs like SF Signal, io9 and Tor.com. Some sites specialize in recommendations, like my Tag Shadow or Worlds Without End. There are too many genre book bloggers to name. All the major genre magazines also review books, with Locus giving the most in depth look. Following awards or reviewing Amazon’s best seller list will give you plenty of fodder.
In the case of The Last Policeman, it was NPR’s Crime in the City segment that turned me on to the series. I’m always a bit giddy when I discover “my kind of book” via a main stream outlet like this. It means “regular people” might be reading the stuff I love. We’re already in the realm of genre fiction when we’re talking about mysteries, but I’m a sucker for a good mashup and that’s what we have here.
The earth has received a death sentence from a large asteroid that’s on a collision course. That’s the one science fictional element, the what if, in an otherwise contemporary story. It’s enough to cause the fabric of society to unravel. The first person present tense (how else would you tell a story in a setting with such an expiration date) narrator is a young police detective named Henry Palace. The novel opens with a victim that seems to have hung himself in the bathroom of a McDonald’s. Palace has a feeling that it’s not just a suicide. However, suicide (particularly by hanging) is rather popular in these end times and laws have even been changed to avoid wasting resources on such cases. The investigation encounters road blocks at every turn.
Bit by bit we learn more about the asteroid hurtling toward earth. How it was discovered. How the percentages dropped from astronomically unlikely to 100% certain. How the world reacted. How Palace seems to be reacting a bit different from everyone else. He’s wanted to be a detective his entire life and so that’s what he’s going to do no matter what else happens. We learn more about the detective and his little sister. But mostly we learn about Peter Anthony Zell, the victim at the opening of the book. He viewed the world through a lens of statistical risk assessment. He was perfectly suited for his job in insurance.
In the background is a cast of characters acting on base impulses. People are attacking their bucket list with vigor. People are embracing religion. People are aggressively pursuing conspiracy theories. People are rethinking pursuits that take longer than 6 months to bear fruit. Our narrator is pragmatic and we see all of this through his analytical viewpoint. It doesn’t seem to matter who is crazy and who is insightful unless it has a bearing on his case.
This book (and I’d assume the rest of the series, Countdown City and A World of Trouble so far) are a careful blend of the pre-apocalyptic setting and the traditional mystery novel. Definitely a more subtle and serious mashup than the Quirk Classics the author has also written. The case gets resolved, but mysteries only deepen in the underlying setting. Along the way, we get a litany of Apocalyptic pop culture 101: “that REM song,” On the Beach, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, etc. This is of course another great way to find reading recommendations if you’re reading a contemporary novel.
The Last Policeman won an Edgar award, which gives it impeccable mystery cred. It’s sequel won the Philip K. Dick award giving it solid science fiction cred. On the basis of this book and those awards I’m excited to read the rest of the series.