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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Quirk Books, 336 pages, $14.95

It’s been a long time since I read the first in a series and immediately wanted to read the rest. I like putting a mental space between books in an author’s series, custom having the propensity to stale, etc. After finishing “The Last Policeman,” I wanted instantly to jump back in the saddle and ride off to the last page of the last book.

“The Last Policeman” won Ben H. Winters the Edgar Award for Best Original Paperback in 2012. This year Winters released “World of Trouble,” the last in his trilogy about a pre-apocalyptic society. “The Last Policeman” certainly deserves the “original” part of the award.

An asteroid is on a collision course with Earth, and there’s no Bruce Willis counterpart to save mankind. (Although it’s probably a given that cockroaches will survive.) There’s plenty of craziness as people react in different ways to the disaster scheduled for sixth months in the future. Six months is an awfully long time to contemplate one’s mortality. So much so that some people opt to commit suicide, preferring pills and hanging, for example, to the darkening of the skies and slow obliteration, or worse.

When “The Last Policeman” opens, no one knows exactly where the asteroid will hit. It will be another month before scientists can predict that. Some people are quitting their routine and seeking their bliss. They are “bucket listers.” Others have been fired or let go from failing businesses, some of which are megaglomerates. The people who choose to live sit around and mope, run off to New Orleans and party hearty, or continue with life, seeking a new normal.

Henry Palace is one of the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other people. He was a patrol officer with the Concord, New Hampshire, police department. Because of defections and deaths in the homicide squad, Henry suddenly finds himself a newly minted, wet-behind-the-ears detective. And he feels ambivalent: “But since making detective I’ve been befogged by a frustrating unnamable sensation, some dissatisfaction, a sense of bad luck, bad timing, where I got the job I’ve wanted and waited for my whole life and it’s a disappointment to me, or I to it.”

People don’t want to be arrested, because incarceration, even if it’s just while awaiting a trial, probably means a life sentence. Pretty much all crimes have the ultimate in a serious consequence. That doesn’t mean there is no crime. Drugs are big. They cut down on the dread and anticipation of potential annihilation. Fraud is big. Money is still the active currency. Looking to weather the environmental devastation, should you be so lucky? Canned goods are available on the black market, as are guns, but all for a humungous price.

A lot of the remaining cops’ time is spent glancing at suicides. Henry has gotten a call on what everyone else is happy to call a suicide and keep on moving. But something bothers Henry, so he doggedly (and sometimes underhandedly) pursues whatever intuition and flimsy clues support a declaration of murder. Does it matter? Is there a karmic justice if an earthly one fails? There is a reason Ben H. Winters calls his book an “existential” mystery.

Clever and beguiling. Heartrending and darkly humorous at times. Despite what I originally thought in 2012 when glancing at the back cover description, this is not a sci-fi novel. Sure, it has an apocalyptic premise, but this story is about human nature, about how hearts break and are healed, about how people can rise or fall when faced with the ultimate crisis.

Here is my post-apocalypse MBTB star.

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