Countdown City by Ben H. Winters (2013) 212 p.

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At the end of The Last Policeman, Detective Hank Palace is no longer a detective or even a policeman. An asteroid is scheduled to collide with the earth in a matter of months, and the US federal government has nationalised city police departments and shuttered the investigative units of Concord, New Hampshire. In Countdown City, Palace is approached by his childhood babysitter to help find her missing husband, who vanished one night and hasn’t come home. In this pre-apocalyptic world, people take off all the time, but she’s fervent that he never would have abandoned her. Palace knows that it’s a hopeless case and he’s unlikely to ever find the man, but as a sort of private investigator, he takes it up anyway. Why? Because everybody has something they cling to when faced with their imminent extinction, and that’s his: being a cop. Being a detective.

I can’t remember how The Last Policeman ended up on my to-be-read pile – it was one of those books that I add on Goodreads and then it sets there for five years before I get around to it – but I was surprised to find that its sequel, Countdown City, won the Philip K. Dick Award. It deserved to. There’s a messier central mystery than The Last Policeman, including an undeserved deus ex machina moment, and I maintain that it would fit more with the overall vibe of the series if Palace’s mysteries ultimately went frustratingly unresolved or turned out to be as unremarkably simple as they first appear (a suicide, a guy just leaving his wife to go have an affair). But the police procedural is really just a structure Winters uses to house the actual appeal of this series: a fascinating examination of a slow-motion apocalypse, of how people cope with knowledge of their impending destruction, and how the human infrastructure of the state responds to what Palace calls “the current environment.”

I started and finished this book on the same day; I can’t remember any time I’ve done that which didn’t involve an intercontinental flight. Granted, this day did involve spending two hours lying on a beach, but even later that evening I was more inclined to continue reading than do anything else. Countdown City holds your attention. That’s a testament to how well Winters captures the page-turning essence of a detective thriller (not his typical genre, I understand) but also a testament to what a good book it is and what a good concept it is. The countdown of the title feels very real: not in the specific rattling off of days or the flipping of a calendar, but rather in the gradual decay of the threads of civilisation; the sense that the world we know is slipping away bit by bit and the clock can never be turned back again. The Concord we see in The Last Policeman is one which is still in shock; still a recognisably functioning society, even if hyperinflation is kicking in and people are starting to “go Bucket List” and petrol’s running out. By the beginning of Countdown City, electricity is gone in New Hampshire, the newspapers have stopped printing, and the economy is down to bartering basics; there’s still law and order, but of a kind which is edging towards a police state, and by the end of the novel things have taken a considerable turn for the worse. Given that it’s the entire premise of the series, if Winters had botched this end-of-days atmosphere of anxiety, bleakness and barely constrained hysteria, it would have been a serious problem. But he carries it off perfectly. A great series, and I’m very much looking forward to finishing it off with the final book, World of Trouble.