Book Review: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

For some reason I thought it was a good idea to read four books at once so I am slowly catching up on my book reviews. I am not going to post as many after this because I am going to be focusing on WWII research for a historical fiction novel I am brewing.

“The Last Policeman” is a dystopian sci-fi mystery novel by Ben H. Winters. It’s a police procedural, certainly; but it is also an examination of how people would act in an apocalyptic event. And no, I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea to read a dystopian novel in a pandemic, but I found it strangely comforting. The interesting thing about dire circumstances like pandemics or catastrophic asteroids hurtling toward Earth is that they show people for who they really are. Nothing like a crisis for bringing out people’s true colors.

It turns out this book is also going to be adapted for TV by NBC, so I’m even more intrigued in continuing on in the trilogy because I really enjoyed this book. The writing was strong and vivid. It was a classic literary fiction meets genre mashup, and the characters were all so good. This truly was a character-driven story. And literary sci fi excites me to no end. You know it when you see it, but it’s difficult to define. It turns out I also have another Winters book on my to-be-read shelf that I have not read yet; Underground Airlines.

The story is about newly minted Detective Hank Palace during a crisis in which Earth learns that an asteroid will hit in six months. Everybody reacts to catastrophe and death differently; much of the detective force quit to go work on their bucket lists, but for Palace, a spot opened up for this patrol officer to fulfill his lifelong dream of solving murders as a detective. His parents were killed, so the dream flows naturally from that.

But who wants to solve murders when we’re all going to die? the book’s tagline goes. Mostly, the police department is investigating “hangers,” how detectives casually refer to suicides. And besides, there are just not many murders any more. The story opens with Palace responding to a case of a hanger in the bathroom of a McDonald’s restaurant. (McDonald’s are no longer McDonald’s, but people operating slow-food restaurants out of the former fast-food franchise.) Everyone is convinced that this death is just another hanger, but Palace is convinced it is a suspicious.

Palace was my favorite character because I saw myself in him. I couldn’t see myself overdosing on drugs, partying at ragers or flying to Tahiti if the world is about to end and we’re all about to die. I could see myself making sure that the job is done right, because that is all I have left. Palace’s dogged integrity was fascinating to watch, as was the sociological study of all the various responses to impending doom and the exploration of economic collapse and religious response.

This was a carefully paced, thoughtful book, that had me guessing and speculating as to the broader implications of this one death until the end. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the trilogy. Usually I don’t read trilogies because I’m not as taken by the first book, but this one is different. This one hooked me.

I am no longer providing Amazon links to my book reviews because I want to support independent bookstores. You can buy this book at Powell’s Books: https://www.powells.com/book/last-policeman-9781594746741

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