The main reason that a few friends and I started a book club was to expose ourselves to works that we each wouldn’t have chosen on our own, due to our personal – and always baseless -- biases against certain genres, subject matter, etc. For example, left to my own devices I never would have chosen to read any book with any form of the word “police” in the title. Now, after reading Ben H. Winters’ highly original and readable The Last Policeman for a club discussion, I’m wondering why not.
Imagine that Earth is going to be hit in six months by an asteroid which will cause mass death and destruction. What would you do with what could be your remaining time? Travel? Spend time with loved ones? Give in to your most selfish desires? Detective Henry (Hank) Palace of Concord, New Hampshire has chosen to keep working. He is called to the scene of a supposed suicide, a “hanger” in the grim slang of the time. Only it doesn’t seem like a suicide to Palace. He takes it upon himself to investigate every aspect of the dead man’s life in order to find out how and why it seems to have ended in a fast food restaurant bathroom stall. There are also a couple other strands in the novel. In the course of his investigation Palace meets a woman who quite intrigues him personally. He is also conscripted by his sister to help her husband extricate himself from his apocalypse-related adventures.
If you like mysteries, this novel is for you. If you like a dystopian setting, this novel is for you. If you like police procedurals – trust me, now you do – this novel is for you. Detective Palace’s first-person narration of this story creates an intimacy which draws the reader in and makes one feel like his partner, feeling our way through possible clues right alongside him. Palace’s position as a rookie detective learning the ropes mirrors the reader’s own as a new arrival to the strange pre-apocalyptic atmosphere in which this novel takes place. The narrative is an intriguing combination of no-nonsense analysis of the facts and keen observation of human behavior. Several principal characters are clearly drawn, revealing numerous different and yet understandable responses to the impending natural disaster.
It is very clear to me why this thoroughly unique and highly enjoyable novel won the 2013 Edgar Award (mystery) for Best Paperback Original. I am happy to report that OC Public Libraries has just ordered copies of The Last Policeman, along with the second installment in Winters’ planned trilogy, Countdown City, which I eagerly await reading!