Review of “The Last Policeman: A Novel” by Ben H. Winters

Henry (“Hank”) Palace is a police detective in Concord, New Hampshire, who got promoted from patrol officer because basically everybody else walked off the job. In fact, people all over the world are walking off their jobs, because “Maia,” a 6.5-kilometer-diameter asteroid, is due to collide with the earth in six months. It will, according to reliable sources, cause a series of interlocking cataclysms resulting in the death of at least half the world’s population.

Palace is a bit unusual in his plodding, dogged pursuit of his job. More typical are scenarios like this:

“Last week in Kathmandu, a thousand pilgrims from all over southeast Asia walked into a massive pyre… In the American Midwest.. .the trend is firearms, a solid majority employing a shotgun blast to the brain.”

Others quit to pursue their “bucket lists”, get incapacitated by depression, or just quietly go insane. A stock market panic resulted in a rash of business failures, religiosity is rampant, and few see any point in working. Palace observes that there has been a “skyrocketing demand for every category of narcotic, for opiates, for Ecstasy, for methamphetamine, for cocaine in all its varieties.” Then there are the survivalists:

“People are building rocket ships, people are building tree houses, people are taking multiple wives, … people are studying to be doctors while doctors quit work and build huts in the desert and sit in them and pray.”

In Concord, suicide by hanging has caught on, so much so that it has been dubbed “Hanger Town.”

Palace thinks though that most people are like himself: just muddling along. But he admits the atmosphere is charged:

“I would characterize the mood, here in town, as that of the child who isn’t in trouble yet, but knows he’s going to be. He’s up in his room, waiting, ‘Just wait till your father gets home.’ He’s sullen and snappish, he’s on edge. Confused, sad, trembling against the knowledge of what’s coming next, and right on the edge of violence, not angry but anxious in a way that can easily shade into anger.”

But this is not quite all of it. Everyone, including Palace, suffers from what might be called a pre-traumatic stress syndrome:

“A loud and terrible noise is filling my room, a shrieking and violent eruption of sound rushing into the darkness, and I’m sitting up and I’m screaming. It’s here, I’m not ready, my heart is exploding in my chest because it’s here, it’s early, it’s happening now.

But it’s just my phone. The shrieking, the horrendous noise, it’s just the landline. I’m sweating, my hand clutched to my chest, shivering on my thin mattress on the floor that I call a bed.

It’s just my stupid phone.”

Palace’s coping strategy is to focus on his job, and he’s currently investigating a suicide that looks suspiciously like murder. The other police make fun of him – who cares at this point? – but Palace doesn’t give up. Much like Columbo, the television police lieutenant played by Peter Falk (1971-1978 and ever after in reruns), Palace seems naïve, shambling, disorganized and awkward. But also like Columbo, eventually his perseverance results in the crime being solved.

Evaluation: Hank Palace is a little too bumbling for me to feel very attached to him personally (I’m more of a Jack Reacher/Harry Hole kind of person), but the scenario of the book is great. The author does an excellent job of showing the myriad ways in which people might react to impending disaster and death, and gives readers a lot to think about. In the book trailer, shown below, you can get an idea of some of the reactions on display in the book. I can’t wait to see what happens as the asteroid closes in, which I will be able to see since this is only book one of a trilogy! Of course! (Thank heavens the asteroid will wait that long….)

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Quirk Books, 2012

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13 Responses to Review of “The Last Policeman: A Novel” by Ben H. Winters

  1. Gee Jill you are spitting out your reviews at record speed….color me jealous:) I’ll probably pass on this one but the premise seems interesting. (I’d be one of those quitting my job in that situation).

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I’m excited about this book since I enjoyed the author’s last one. The reviews I’m reading are making me wonder what I’d do if I knew the world would end in six months.

  3. Trish says:

    trilogy. Groan. 😉 So this is what is causing ALL the buzz on twitter lately (well, between Quirk and Book Riot). Hmmm, quitting job and working on bucket list. Like the sound of that!

  4. Sandy says:

    This premise has my name written all over it. Now, the trilogy thing, it annoys me, but I can see where it might be necessary. You can’t really cover the end of the world AND a policemen solving murders all in one book. I just wish the protagonist inspired a little more love. I like my police officers badass.

  5. zibilee says:

    I think I would really like this one, and am very curious about how the population deals with impending disaster. It sounds kind of scary, but also fascinating, and this is probably one that I need to read very soon. I haven’t gotten good and excited over a trilogy in a long time, but this one has me wanting to pop into the bookstore and give it a try. Thanks for the excellent review, Jill! I loved all the quotes. It gave the review a wonderful feeling of excitement mixed with terror.

  6. Staci@LifeintheThumb says:

    A copy of this showed up for me the other day and I’m really looking forward to reading it even though that trailer scared the poo out of me!

  7. Ti says:

    Thanks for giving me your copy. I have it prominently displayed on my bookshelf and I just might start it this weekend, as I am feeling a little doomsday-ish these days.

  8. well, as my review today I hope makes clear, I liked this one a bit more than you. In fact I liked it a great deal..maybe loved it. I find the premise fascinating, but more than that I liked Hank and trying to figure out what makes him tick. loved it…!

  9. Kaye says:

    Hmmm . . . pre or post apocalytic never appealed to me but I can see where it would fascinate a lot of readers. Glad you like Reacher, though! Me too!

  10. Trilogy? Asteroids?? You know I’m running in the opposite direction 😉

  11. bookingmama says:

    This probably isn’t my cup of tea but I can see the appeal. I’ve actually heard some pretty good things about this novel!

  12. stacybuckeye says:

    You had me until the trilogy announcement. I should have looked at the end to see if that was coming. Kind of like the asteroid. The premise sounds interesting and I’d probably like seeing how the world reacts more than the murder mystery.

    • But the story ENDS, in the sense that the police mystery is solved. I would see it more as an ongoing police detective series. It is not like the YA trilogies that drop you off in the middle of the story. I recommend this “series”! LOL

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