The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters (2012) 213 p.

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The asteroid Maia is on a collision course with Earth, and there’s nothing we can do about it except sit and wait to die in about six months. Society is starting to come apart a little, but is still mostly civilised – lots of people are killing themselves, lots of people are walking away from their jobs and families to go do whatever it is they’ve always wanted to do, but most people are just carrying on as usual out of sheer inertia. Or possibly because they’re already doing what they’ve always wanted to do, like our protagonist Henry Palace: police patrolman in the New Hampshire capital Concord, recently made a detective because half their CID team has, as they put it, gone Bucket List. Palace is called to a suicide by hanging in a McDonald’s bathroom, and soon becomes convinced that it isn’t a suicide at all but a murder.

I would exactly call this a sci-fi book, but certainly the sci-fi aspect looms large over it and I wouldn’t have picked it up if it were just a detective novel. The Last Policeman is a mystery novel with literary aspirations (you know – it’s just a prose style thing) and the incoming asteroid creating a pre-apocalyptic society is basically a study in how people react and how society would change if we knew there wasn’t much time to go. We all know we’re going to die one day, of course, but it’s depressing to know exactly when, and even more depressing to know that nobody’s going to be carrying on after you. The question Palace is trying to answer is why somebody would commit a murder at a time like this – but the other question hanging over the book is why he should care, why anybody should care?

Winters answers that question well enough. Despite its introspective first person narration, The Last Policeman certainly works as a detective novel, zipping along quickly with plenty of twists and turns and cliffhangers. There come points where Palace figures something out which he doesn’t share with the reader, but that’s towards the climax and you aren’t kept hanging for too long anyway, so that’s fine. There was, though, an aspect which reminded me another detective-novel-as-literature I’ve read – the acclaimed writer Peter Temple’s novel The Broken Shore, in which I suspected the protagonist would never solve the case and would simply be left haunted by lingering suspicions and a sense of unresolved injustice, but in which Temple eventually went back on track with the traditional detective story confrontation and conclusion anyway. In the case of The Last Policeman, there came I point where I was fairly certain that Palace’s case was going to turn out to be a suicide after all, and that his dogged determination and persistent gut feeling that it was actually a murder was his own way of dealing with the impending doom: a way of pretending to be what he’d always wanted to be, a proper homicide detective on a proper case. This turned out to be wrong, which is a shame, because I think it would have made for a more thematically consistent and overall better novel.

Which isn’t to say that it isn’t a good book. Palace is a likeable enough protagonist, a well-meaning dweeb who grew up to be a cop, learning the criminal code off by heart and thinking that ecstasy is spelt with a capital E. There are some good character beats, and there’s one particularly good moment, when Palace finally tells the reader the fate of his absent parents – a bit within that story which is mentioned almost off-handedly but, in a really affecting way, immediately enhances the admiration we feel for a fellow detective who has mostly been a stock character up to that point. There’s an interesting story thread involving Palace’s sister which is left only half-resolved, and which would have annoyed me except that I know there’s two more books which take place closer to the asteroid impact. A quick, easy and decent read, and I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the series.