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Monday, November 3, 2014

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

Quirk Book, 322 pages, $14.95 (c2013)

Rule Number One: You must have read “The Last Policeman,” the first book in Ben H. Winters’ series, for “Countdown City,” the second book, to make any sense.

Rule Number Two: There is no rule number two.

There are very few rules left in Concord, New Hampshire, where Henry Palace used to be a police detective. The “authorities” have consolidated and Henry and his fellow homicide detectives are out of a job. And all this because of a wayward asteroid headed for a disastrous rendezvous with Earth seventy-seven days from the beginning of this volume of “The Last Policeman” trilogy.

What would you do if you potentially only had seventy-seven days to live? Henry keeps his sanity by simply living his life according to the ethical and legal rules he has always known. He and his sister, Nico, grew up in the area, so when his former babysitter, Martha, needs help, she comes to him.

Martha’s husband was a state trooper and much admired. He gave it up to work with her father in a pizza pie restaurant. He was good and faithful and true, or so Martha believes. But suddenly, after asteroid Maia became public knowledge, he disappeared. Martha wants Henry to find him. With the Internet down, the police/security/military forces simply holding chaos at bay, and electricity shut down, what chance does Henry have to find Brett? But Henry being Henry, he has to try.

Through Henry’s eyes, Winters presents the slow disintegration of a vital city. Almost nothing and no one can be counted on any longer. (At one point, Henry sees his childhood dentist hanging from a light pole, dressed in leather, directing an unruly mob.) After Henry was released from the police force, he no longer had access to a car and must now travel everywhere by foot or bicycle. He is accompanied most places, no matter how far away, by his dog, Houdini (acquired in the first episode).

To track Brett, Henry travels perilously through ad hoc strongholds. He meets crazy people, people on the edge of being crazy, and clear-eyed lunatics.

There are some people he can still count on. His maybe-crazy sister comes to his aid at one point. An old colleague from the detective squad gives him strength and assurance. Ruth-Ann, a fixture at the diner where Henry and other detectives used to eat, still dons her waitress uniform, pulls out her pencil and pad and takes orders, despite a dwindling supply of food. At the end, there is only tea to offer, but the diner remains a still point in the chaos. And that is what book two is about: the descent into chaos, with new rules and new allies. The center cannot hold, but Henry tries his best.

Winters has written a real detective story and combined it with a dark look at human beings on the point of potential destruction. It makes for a powerful story. Winters’ writing is strong and elegant enough to carry the story forward, without being schmaltsy, tawdry or pandering.

Luckily book three, “World of Trouble,” was just released. I would have hated to have had to wait a year in between each book. Forward and onward.

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