Thursday, June 1, 2017


THE LAST POLICEMAN by Ben Winters (Quirk Books, 2012)

Reviewed by Shane Donald

What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway? Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.

The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares. 

Detective fiction has been described as having a perfect unity of form – there’s a beginning, a middle and an end; there’s a crime, the detective investigates and order is restored with the unmasking of the criminal. Concerns such as character development are secondary to the plot. The Last Policeman by Ben Winters is narrated from the point of view of Hank Palace, the detective of the title. It is his voice that describes what is going on and how the characters of the novel interact. Through Hank's voice, the reader comes to understand the world he inhabits and the people who make up this world. Set in the here and now, The Last Policeman resembles our world, with one crucial difference. Everyone in the novel knows that they are going to die in six weeks.

This is the central conceit of this novel. An asteroid nicknamed Mara is due to make impact with Earth in six weeks. It’s an extinction-level event that will kill all life on the planet either upon impact or in the weeks that follow as dust clouds block out the light. With not much time left, society has fractured, with ‘bucket listers’ leaving their old lives behind to pursue their dreams and others stocking up on provisions for what is to come. A good number of people commit suicide rather than face up to the fact that mankind will be extinct in a matter of weeks. Law and order is becoming an alien concept which leads to Patrolman Hank Palace being promoted to detective. Called to a suicide at McDonald's Hank believes the victim has been murdered. But who would murder someone when everyone will die in a matter of weeks? What would be the point?

Finding meaning when existence is pointless is a central theme of The Last Policeman. Hank has always wanted to understand the truth of things. As he says of himself, ‘I just have to know.' Uncovering the truth of things is Hank’s reason for being. The fact that the world will end doesn’t alter this fact. He has a job to do.

This novel asks the big questions – what is the meaning of life? What would you do if you knew you were going to die?  All of this is wrapped up in a detective story that isn’t afraid to ask these questions while obeying the conventions of the form.

As a character, Hank could come across as an earnest young man whose essential goodness is annoying. That this doesn’t happen is due to Winters’ skill as a writer. Hank is a layered character who goes through tragedy, self-awareness and acceptance of things in the course of the novel. By the end he is a wiser person, with a better understanding of his world and himself.

The Last Policeman won a 2013 Edgar Award and has been optioned by NBC for a TV series and it’s easy to see why. Winters has created a dystopic word unique in crime fiction. While many reviews have focused on the world the novel depicts, it is still at heart a detective novel that investigates a murder and what it means to be human.

Shane Donald is a New Zealander living in Taiwan. An avid reader with 3,000 books in his home, he completed a dissertation on Ngaio Marsh for his MA degree, and also has a PhD in applied linguistics. 

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