Would you continue to work? Would you have the will to live, to love, to make a difference in the lives around you, or would you give up? These are some of the questions that are grappled with in a new apocalyptic mystery, “The Last Policeman,” by Ben Winters (first in a planned trilogy).
As the story begins, it’s been discovered that part of the world is under the threat of being smashed to smithereens by an asteroid 6.5 kilometers in diameter. At this point, the area of impact is still to be determined.
As the doomsday clock begins to tick, businesses fail, and living for many becomes arduous. With the exception of the police force, jobless rates soar. And suicide rates climb. So when Detective Hank Palace is called to investigate the death of Peter Zell, who apparently killed himself in a bathroom stall of a McDonalds, he could have been forgiven if he had quickly dismissed Zell as simply another “hanger” in a stream of hangers. But something about the scene doesn’t quite add up.
With the imminent danger of an asteroid strike, is there a reason for Palace to take the time to investigate his niggling suspicion? Most of his colleagues think it’s a wasted effort. As Palace dryly observes, “The end of the world changes everything, from a law-enforcement perspective.”
“The Last Policeman” is a mystery with a lot of twists and turns and a keen study of human nature.
Ben Winters is an accomplished novelist, heretofore mostly writing for young adults. I reviewed his book “The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman” for Youth Reads, and found that Winters has a powerful ability to zero in on human follies and foibles as well as human virtue. He continues to show that skill in this novel.
But unlike “Secret Life,” “The Last Policeman” isn’t funny; quite the contrary. In this story, Winters focuses on the fears and actions of people that are faced with possible annihilation. Like many other dystopian novels, this is a gritty story permeated by a sense of hopelessness.
The weather in the story, set in Concord, New Hampshire, is a barometer of the characters’ internal struggles. It is cold and gray, sometimes snowing, other times sleeting. Winters also uses the description of the inside of Palace’s home to reflect a pervading sense of emptiness. As Palace continues to investigate the suspicious death of Peter Zell, he faces some unexpected family challenges. Swirling in the background of the investigation, there is a multi-layered story of Palace’s childhood and what motivated him to become a policeman.
Adding to the sense of doom, none of the main or supporting characters have faith. Palace is an agnostic. While there are “aggressive religious types” out on the street proclaiming that the end of the world is near, actual Christians seem to be in short supply. Seen through Palace’s eyes, the religious are vaguely threatening. Instead of encouraging others through meaningful conversation, or helping the needy by providing food or hot coffee, or just doing the everyday work of living hope-filled lives, the religious form blockades around other people, handing out pamphlets intoning slogans like “Be not afraid” or “Simply pray.”
There are surprising twists to the mystery of Peter Zell’s death, complete with a police shooting.
“The Last Policeman” is a sobering, thought-provoking story. What would you do if you knew a huge asteroid from outer space were on a collision path with Earth? As Christianity wanes in the West, we are increasingly seeing desperation and a sense of hopelessness very like that in Winters’s book in the people around us. If you have family members or friends who would be interested in a novel with this premise, you might consider using “The Last Policeman” as a starting point to spur discussion about the hope you have within you.
Image copyright Quirk Books. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
Kim Moreland is the managing editor for the Colson Center, manages the Colson Center Library, is a research associate for BreakPoint, and writes feature articles and blog posts for BreakPoint.