Book Review: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters is a dark, absorbing, yet ultimately hopeful novel about a police detective doggedly doing his job even as the world is literally about to end.

Henry (Hank) Palace has wanted to be a police detective since his mother was killed when he was a boy. Now Hank has his chance, he is promoted to detective after only one year, three months and ten days as a patrolman. The reason for his early promotion is that most of the rest of the police force of Concord, New Hampshire has walked off the job. The reason; a six and half kilometer wide asteroid is due to hit the earth in October and it is already March.

Humankind is dealing with the news of its imminent demise the same way it has dealt with disasters in the past; which is to say in about every different way possible. Some people have stopped working and are going through their “bucket lists,” others seek escape in drink and drugs and sex, and others are committing suicide. The chosen method of suicide varies by country and region. In India, thousands burn themselves alive. In the American Midwest, a shotgun in the mouth is favored. In Concord, it is hanging. Hanging is so popular that Concord is called “Hanger Town”. However, the majority are going about their daily lives as best they can, muddling through, doing their jobs and hoping for the best.

Hank Palace is in the last group. When another body is found in a McDonald’s bathroom, Hank is assigned the job. Anthony Zell, a 38 year old insurance man has used his own belt to hang himself. But what looks like just another suicide to everyone else looks like murder to Hank. A murder he is determined to solve in the face of all resistance.

The Last Policeman is a good old-fashioned police procedural with an apocalyptic background. It is written in the first-person and as such the work rises or falls on the main character; Hank Palace. Fortunately, Hank is an easy to like, compelling character. He is finally living his dream of being a detective and regardless of the circumstances he is determined to do the job the best way he knows how.

Of course, the real question the book asks is not who murdered Anthony Zell, but why bother to solve a murder when everyone will be dead in six months? For Hank the answer is simple; it is his job and even at the end of the world we should try and get justice for people.

The first book of a planned trilogy, The Last Policeman starts a bit slow and leaves a few loose ends that will hopefully be ties up as the series goes on. But ultimately the novel is very readable and interesting.

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