Because I read Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman and Countdown City over the course of a day and a half, I’m going to review them together rather than singly. Though really, the fact that I read them both in that time period is probably all you need to know about what I thought of them.
The two novels are set in Concord, New Hampshire, and center on newly-made detective Hank Palace as he tries to solve a possible murder/insurance fraud in the first novel and a missing persons case in the second. Oh yeah, and there’s also the little matter of the imminent collapse of human society thanks to the extinction-level asteroid coming Earth’s way in six months in The Last Policeman and in only 77 days in Countdown City.
Typically, these sorts of stories give us a somewhat world-weary detective facing multiple obstacles in order to get to the truth and restore at least a semblance of order on the (possibly very small) world. Here, though, there will be no restoration of world order, as the world is about to end. And the “obstacles” aren’t simply a corrupt or slow bureaucracy, but an entire society that has pretty much given up: people are leaving their jobs in droves, “going bucket” to realize dreams they once had; communication lines are dying off as employees disappear and people stop paying bills; even McDonald’s has shut down. Our first-person narrator Hank describes the current situation this way:
There are differences in behavior, but they are on the margins. The main difference, from a law-enforcement perspective, is more atmospheric. . The mood here in town is 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.
As for the authorities, the police force is down to less than a skeletal staff (though they and the government are the only ones still able to have cars or gas); the crime lab is nearly non-existent; and anyway, who cares whether someone commits a crime at this point? As for world-weary, well, Hank is young, a relative innocent in the ways of the normal world, let alone this one, and he’s tired of “People hiding behind the asteroid, like it’s an excuse for poor conduct, for miserable and desperate and selfish behavior.”
And there is a good amount of that sort of behavior going on as Hank tries against all odds to solve the murder of Peter Fell, insurance investigator found with a belt wrapped around his neck in a pirate McDonald’s bathroom, though everyone else simply dismisses him as the typical “hangar” — the suicide method of choice in Concord (other regions have their own favorite methods).
Hank’s desire to do a job well contrasts the wry fatalism that runs throughout most of the novel, either in the background (references to end-of-the-world songs playing) or in the foreground via dialog:
I used to want to be a cop.
Hey, it’s never too late.
Well, it is though.
In The Last Policeman, the asteroid and the reactions to it mostly plays out in this fatalism: sometimes dry, sometimes sad, occasionally but rarely violent. I really liked the fact that Winter doesn’t dwell on the asteroid itself, whose discovery, approach and impending results are only gradually and minimally revealed. This is a quiet pre-apocalyptic novel, not a bang-bang Road Warrior/The Road sort of post-apocalyptic one.
The mystery is well plotted and interesting in its own right, but really what makes this book (both books) so compelling is the rich pre-apocalyptic atmosphere and Hank’s characterization, along with other characters that come in and out of the mix — his somewhat oddball sister, who is mixed up with conspiracy theorists; Dr. Fenton, the local coroner who also believes in a job done well regardless of context; Sgt. Culverson, a mentor figure for Hank; and a host of others large and small.
By the time of Countdown City, the more imminent end has turned Concord much more dangerous as people begin to hoard food, loot, use guns to defend themselves or take from others, and so on. Hank is no longer on the force by this time, so as he looks for the missing husband of a childhood friend, his difficulties are exponentially higher, especially as he no longer has vehicle access and has to bike/walk everywhere. Countdown City is a darker, grimmer, more violent work, but still with lots of the wry gallows humor of the first book.
I only had a few minor, very minor, complaints. One is we have a few too many shootout/helicopter-at-the-last-minute moments, though really there aren’t all that many. It’s just that the focus on people and relationships is so quietly good that those moments are a bit jarring, though they do make perfect sense in the context of the setting (save for that damn helicopter arrival). Another is that the missing husband character is played a bit too goody-goody with the “He’s just Brett” phrase used a bit too freely. But as I mentioned, these were minor complaints. I was captivated by both setting and character in both, opening up Countdown City on my Kindle immediately upon finishing The Last Policeman. I can’t wait for the concluding book coming sometime this year. Highly recommended.