The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Maybe Not Today, Maybe Not Tomorrow, But Soon and for the Rest of Your...Oh. (review: The Last Policeman, Ben H Winter)

The Last Policeman
Ben H Winter
Quirk Books 2012

You’re a cop in small-town USA, the country has been gripped by a spate of suicides - mostly hangings in your, erm, neck of the woods. You’re called to yet another body in the toilet of a local MacDonald’s, now run as a pirate franchise in the absence of any kind of head office. The Attorney General’s office wants it swept away as one more suicide but something doesn’t play right with you. You’re thinking murder. Gut instinct. You’re going to pursue this one to the end, despite the fact that most of the rest of the police force has disappeared to pursue their life’s dreams or is getting high on the job on recently-legalised marijuana.

Oh yeah, and an asteroid is going to smash into the earth in six months’ time, rendering all of your efforts utterly pointless.

Such is the set-up for Ben H Winters’ The Last Policeman, possibly the only example of pre apocalyptical police procedural literature in existence. Hank Palace is the titular officer, recently promoted to the rank of detective after a mere year and a half working the streets as a rookie.  His seemingly meteoric rise has an unfortunate explanation: some months ago, astronomers began tracking an object potentially on a collision course with earth. As time wore on the probability of an impact grew and grew until it became inevitable. Now, faced with an extinction-level event, society is coming apart at the seams. Those professionals who have not upped sticks to tick off their ‘bucket lists’ have either resorted to various forms of chemical sedation, opted to take their own lives or, like Hank, have gritted their teeth and resolved to keep things ticking over until the inevitable end.

Despite the unusual window dressing, The Last Policeman plays much more like a straight detective story than science-fiction. All of the elements are there - the one good cop in a barrel of bad apples, the off-kilter crime scene, the tangled web of motives, even the sultry dame who knows more than she’s letting on. These all take centre stage and the elephant in the room is relegated to the background, serving more as a means to alter the usual trajectories on which peoples’ characters are placed than as a major plot device in itself. What would people do in a world where there was literally no hope? How would they behave? What would they seek? These are the questions explored by Detective Palace while trying to unravel what he’s increasingly sure is going to be one of the last traditional crimes he’ll ever work on.
Told from a traditional noir thriller’s first-person perspective, The Last Policeman really lets us behind Palace’s eyes and lets us feel the frustration of his existence. The orphaned child of murdered (well, maybe) parents, his life’s ambition was to join the force and help save others from a similar fate. Utterly dedicated and a total nerd for law enforcement texts, laws and statutes he finally reaches that goal, only to have its meaning stripped away by the ever-growing shadow of asteroid 2011GV1. The police force is now packed with utter rookies to make up numbers. Draconian laws are being introduced every day to counter the latest riots. People seek refuge in drugs, mayhem or simply the grave. Yet Hank Palace will not let this case rest, despite protestations from his peers and superiors.
As the story plays out you do realise that there’s going to be no happy ending. This is noir fiction retold in a modern age and there’s no deus ex machina to snatch the players from their fates. How could there be when the end is around the corner? This is the strongest point of the novel, drawing you into the twists and turns of the narrative while knowing that the ultimate outcome is inevitable. Or is it? The Last Policeman is the first installment of a trilogy set in the closing days of this world.
I’m hoping there’ll be no salvation,that the asteroid will keep on tumbling until the bitter end. Finding out will give me something to look forward to for the next couple of years.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. The Last Policeman is available now.

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