BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Ben H. Winters
Filed under: Mystery
The Last Policeman starts with a terrific premise. An asteroid will hit the Earth in six months, wiping out all human life. The scientists announced their findings three months ago, and civilization has crumbled in the intervening time.
As the book opens, newly appointed Detective Hank Palace investigates a suspicious death in a McDonald’s bathroom. It looks for all the world like a “hanger”—one of the suicides that have become commonplace since the world became doomed. But Palace, despite the evidence, decides that it is in fact a murder, and begins to investigate it as such. So far, so good.
Except for this: why, exactly, does he investigate? That question is never satisfactorily answered. In the end, the book fails on almost every level, and it all starts with that first why.
Great detective novels have driven protagonists. Those books focus on cases that inspire the people working them, cases that require sacrifice and heroism. The need for that intense motivation is doubled when the world’s about to end, both because putting criminals in jail becomes largely a symbolic act, and because the detective is sacrificing his last remaining days of life in addition to everything else.
Hank Palace claims to love his job, but that’s not enough of a reason to work this particular case. Even if he wanted nothing more than to solve murders for the rest of his short life, he has to be convinced that this is the most important case available to him if he doesn’t want to waste his precious time. But Palace is far from convinced—everyone, including him, thinks the case is probably a suicide, and the evidence backs up the suicide angle. Despite all that, Palace moves heaven and earth to pursue the case as a murder, risking his job and his life in the process. There is simply no believable reason for Palace to go to the lengths he does… except that if he doesn’t there’s no novel.
To make matters worse, Palace is a boring, by-the-book cop, who whines and moans when other cops so much as crack a racy joke. He calls himself “Detective Palace” in his mind, and sometimes misses fairly obvious clues (presumably in order to stretch out the plot). He’s kind of dumb, in other words, and he’s such a wet blanket that he ruins most of the fun of the case.
The writing also leaves a lot to be desired. Winters sometimes tries to write like a pulp novelist, but Palace is too gooey a character. He winds up sounding like an angsty teenager describing his emotions by hamfistedly cataloging his physical feelings (his heart beats “like a desperate prisoner” in one passage).
Furthermore, there are an alarming number of mistakes for a published novel. Not typos (there are those, too), but significant editorial mistakes. Sometimes Winters uses the wrong word (“immanence” is not the same as “imminence,” especially in a book about doom). He writes weird passages that sound awfully contrived and acutely fictional (like one about Palace getting an adrenaline rush… in just his left leg). Sometimes he even uses the wrong character’s name—obviously a big problem in a mystery novel.
And I can’t mention this enough: Palace’s motivation disappoints entirely. Winters eventually retrofits him with a reason to want to be a cop (his mother was killed in a robbery, yawn), but ignores the fact that this case should not be just another normal case. It’s the most important case of Palace’s brief career and it should be treated as such.
This exposes a larger problem: Winters treats the apocalypse as window dressing. He uses it primarily for the eccentric details he can dream up: there’s no gasoline, McDonald’s franchises have been taken over by squatters, etc.
The mystery has nothing to do with these details, and nothing to do with the coming apocalypse. More importantly, the mystery plot operates on a much, much smaller scale than the apocalypse backdrop. In fact, when Palace solves the case, he says the answer is, “So small, so squalid, so dull.” He’s right.
The kicker is that Winters knows he should be crafting a more epic mystery to fit the apocalypse. A subplot follows Palace’s attempt to find his sister’s boyfriend, who’s in military prison after attempting to get onto a secret moon rocket he believes the government is arranging. For a few pages, Winters implies that there might be such a thing, a massive conspiracy to save a few people. Then it turns out that that whole subplot is a red herring—there’s no rocket and no conspiracy. In fact, there’s nothing to this book but a mundane mystery in the trappings of grandeur.
This was a great premise, but it needed to move in one of two directions: either toward a meditation on the hows and whys of working in a doomed world, or toward a mystery to rival an apocalypse. Since Winters chooses a third path–an uninsightful investigation into a meaningless crime–the result can only disappoint.
Similar books: The Reversal, by Michael Connelly; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon; The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker