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The Last Policeman: A Novel (The Last Policeman Trilogy) Paperback – May 13, 2013
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, July 2012: It’s not often you hear a book described as a pre-apocalyptic police procedural. But in the hands of Ben Winters (Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters), the mash-up of murder mystery and gloomy end-of-world melodrama works perfectly. Detective Hank Palace knows the world will likely be destroyed in six months by the meteor headed toward earth like a bullet. But unlike those who are giving up, quitting jobs, doing drugs, running away, or killing themselves, Palace has a job to do. He’s got a murder to solve. So he keeps plugging away, unwilling to let the looming apocalypse distract him from finding the killer. Palace is an appealingly off-kilter character, more goofball than hard-boiled. So it’s a very good thing that this is the first in a planned trilogy. --Neal Thompson
Amazon Exclusive: Q&A with Ben H. Winters
The Last Policeman is set in a world in which a massive asteroid is hurtling toward Earth, but the novel centers on one detective's murder investigation. Where did you get the idea to combine these two disparate elements of storytelling?
Well, you know, story ideas are like giant planet-dooming asteroids: they always take you by surprise. But I've always had a soft spot for certain kinds of science fiction, books that imagine one grand change to the human situation and tease it out. P. D. James's Children of Men is a marvelous example, or Philip José Farmer's Riverworld series.
The "pre-apocalyptic" side of this "pre-apocalyptic murder mystery" definitely came first. I thought it would be fascinating to imagine my way into the sad and terrifying last months of civilization. Then I set about imagining the right hero for this kind of book, and I thought that what I needed was someone who is extremely dedicated to his work, who cannot let the world end before solving the puzzle before him. That's where the character of Detective Henry Palace came from, my intensely, even bizarrely dedicated public servant.
The obligatory question: What would you do if Earth would be annihilated in six months?
Well, I'm under contract with Quirk Books to write the sequel to The Last Policeman, so first I'd get that done.
Just kidding. I think, honestly, that I would spend time with my children. I'd read them a lot of books, and take them to beautiful places, and try to prevent them from hearing anything about what was coming. (The idea of that, by the way, makes me tearful, as it did periodically over the course of writing this.)
Can you give us any details about the upcoming second and third novels in the series?
Like The Last Policeman, each of the sequels will have at its center a crime that Palace is trying to solve. But, also like this one, each will be at least equally interested in the details of the disintegrating world, and in plumbing the psyche of this lawman: how and why he remains "on the job" even as the job, along with the rest of civilization, crumbles around him.
“A genre-defying blend of crime writing and science fiction.” –Alexandra Alter, The New York Times
“The Last Policeman books offer an appealing hybrid of the best of science fiction and crime fiction.”—The Washington Post
“In his acclaimed Last Policeman trilogy, Masters showed off his mastery of edgy, sardonic wit — there’s nothing like an asteroid speeding toward Earth to bring out the black humor in people.”—Newsday
“Sharp, funny, and deeply wise.”—Slate.com
“I’m in the middle of it and can’t put the dang thing down.”—USA Today’s Pop Candy
“Ben Winters makes noir mystery even darker: his latest novel sets a despondent detective on a suspicious suicide case—while an asteroid hurtles toward earth.”—Wired.com
“In his Last Policeman trilogy, for which he won both the Edgar Award and the Philip K. Dick Award, Winters took a standard science fiction trope — the final months before an asteroid slams into Earth — and mixed it with some of the conventions of the detective novel, imbuing his apocalyptic scenario with an extra measure of urgency and poignancy.”—The San Francisco Chronicle
“Winters’s writing is funny, surprisingly tender, and thoroughly human.”—Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
“Winters constructs a sturdy, functional, entertaining page-turner.”—Greg Cook, WBUR.org
“I’m eager to read the other books, and expect that they’ll keep me as enthralled as the first one did.”—Mark Frauenfedler, Boing Boing
“Normally, only Stephen King and Dean Koontz can suck me into a book and not release their stranglehold until I, exhausted from lack of sleep, have turned the last page. Now [Ben Winters] has joined their ranks...The Last Policeman is extraordinary—as well as brilliant, surprising, and, considering the circumstances, oddly uplifting.”—Mystery Scene
“The Last Policeman succeeds both as a mystery, with a quirky detective and an intriguing whodunit, and as a piece of apocalyptic speculative fiction. That’s good news. The even better news is that this novel is supposed to be the first of a planned trilogy, with each case occurring closer to the moment when, as Henry repeatedly notes, ‘Bam!’ And that is something we can anticipate with a good feeling.”—Sacramento News & Review
“Full of compelling twists, likable characters, and a sad beauty, The Last Policeman is a gem.”—San Francisco Book Review
“The best genre fiction holds a mirror up to society while also providing edge-of-the-seat excitement, and The Last Policeman did that and more.”—Las Vegas City Life
“This is a book that asks big questions about civilization, community, desperation and hope.”—io9.com
“An entertaining and well-plotted tale.”—Wired.com’s GeekDad
“The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States.”—Tor.com
“A heck of a lot of fun.”—Locus
“Resonant and powerful.”—Locus
“Ben Winters vividly describes the decline of civilization in this pre-apocalyptic story, and spins a wonderful tale...This engrossing story is the first in a planned trilogy. It is a well-written mystery that will have readers eagerly awaiting the second installment.”—New York Journal of Books
“If the next two books are as good as this one, I can’t wait for the end of the world.”—Asbury Park Press
“Winter’s novel is a solid noir detective tale, set in a pre-apocalyptic world where the coming destruction is an unavoidable aspect of life.”—Colchester Sun
“Winters is masterful in crafting a plausible image of a society that’s hanging onto sanity by its fingernails as it teeters on the edge of mass hysteria...This is a novel that grabs ahold of you and doesn’t let you go until the very end.”—The Nashua Telegraph
“A fascinating character study…. This novel combines the best of detective investigation with philosophical debate and science fiction.” —My Edmonds News
“Absolutely outstanding, I completely loved it from start to finish and I’m already rueing the fact that there will only be two more in the series...this gets the highest recommendation I can give. Buy it.”—In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel
“A promising kickoff to a planned trilogy. For Winters, the beauty is in the details rather than the plot’s grim main thrust.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“A solidly plotted whodunit with strong characters and excellent dialogue...This memorable tale is the first of a planned trilogy.”—Booklist
“This thought-provoking mystery should appeal to crime fiction aficionados who like an unusual setting and readers looking for a fresh take on apocalypse stories.”—Library Journal
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What would life be like if we knew humanity's days were numbered in the months, not eons? There will be both personal reactions by every inhabitant of the planet and a response by human society as a whole (as well as local or regional differences). It is daunting to take on such a subject. Yet you can't really ignore what is going on everywhere even if you want to focus on one or a few individuals. Ben Waters manages to strike just the right balance so that his characters still have scope to act in the world even as the world itself is crumbling all around them.
Winters also doesn't let the science overwhelm the human story, even though it is certainly an essential element of the novel. (His manner of introducing it into the narrative reminds me of Karen Joy Fowler's deft handling of issues in animal ethics in her moving novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.)
I was tickled to see a tip of the hat in the acknowledgments to Rusty Schweickart with the qualification that the author disagrees with the ex-astronaut's emphasis on "sub-apocalyptic impacts." I myself have done a little sparring on this subject with Schweickart's colleague (and also ex-astronaut) Ed Lu at the B612 Foundation. While these men may be doing more than any other individuals on the planet to save the planet (that is, human civilization), and I urge every reader to donate money to B612's effort to put the Sentinel telescope in orbit for this purpose, and I even understand their current focus on city-busters rather than dinosaur-killer-size objects, I do wish they would be a little less dismissive of the threat from the latter.
In fact on this point I would even take issue with Winters, since his dinosaur-killer-size object is an asteroid, whereas I think it would more likely be a comet. (I say more about this in my review of Donald K. Yeomans' Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them before They Find Us.) But while that is a crucial point for planetary defense policy, it is a mere quibble about Winters' novel; and the culprit could indeed be an asteroid.
And now to buy the second book in this trilogy ...
This is a mystery plot with a twist- the world is going to be struck by a giant asteroid in about six months. Life on planet Earth is ending. It was refreshing to read a book about what happens before the apocalypse instead of after. The asteroid was also a seemingly plausible explanation for it.
We get to see how society devolves as it comes closer and closer to the end. People quit their jobs to work on their bucket lists. The economy collapses. Suicide rates spike. Crime rates spike. What little of the police force is left can't keep up with it.
In steps Detective Hank Palace to save the day (well, as much as a day can be saved when the apocalypse is coming). Palace only ever wanted to be a policeman. After 14 weeks (I think) on patrol, he's promoted to Detective. The Concord NH PD can't keep up with the number of detectives they are losing to the Bucket List. Hank is mostly called to suicide scenes. There isn't a lot for him to investigate, and new laws have declared that obvious suicides should no longer be investigated. But when Palace is called to the scene to investigate a hanger, something doesn't sit right with him, and against the wishes and directives of his colleagues and superiors, he decides to investigate.
The mystery here was average. I didn't feel like it was ground breaking or filled with twists and turns. It wasn't a bad mystery by any means, it just didn't feel like it brought anything new to the table.
I enjoyed everything else. Watching the world around Palace crumble to pieces. Seeing how Palace himself coped. Hearing the bits and pieces about the asteroid, and how the world suggested they deal with it. There is a subplot regarding Hank's sister Nico and a secret government agency that really sucked me in, and I will probably pick up the next two books in the trilogy at some point to see how that plays out.
I liked Palace as a character. He's sort of an average Joe. His head is glued on very straight. He seems like the only one not panicking about the asteroid. His attitude is: I can't do anything to stop it, I may as well just carry on with my day. He isn't equipped with anything more than his will to persist and keen instincts, and in fact sometimes even those prove to be wrong.
This was a light, easy read that I would recommend to fans of the genre.
When I write dialogue, I try to give a sense of the character through their words without a lot of backstory. I also try to keep things moving forward and, while I'm at it, make the words interesting--funny, if possible. Here's a snippet from "The Last Policeman." Henry Palace, a rookie police detective, is on the phone with a local merchant. The merchant speaks first.
"Is this a joke?"
"I mean, are you joking?"
"All right, buddy."
"I'm investigating a suspicious death, and the information might be material."
"Alllll right, buddy."
Pure gold, my friends. That last line had me on the floor. And there's lots more where that came from.
If you like a well-written mystery that's a little off, with great characters and poignant prose, then read this book. You won't be disappointed. I'll leave you with this quote:
"The end of the world changes everything, from a law-enforcement perspective."
It's really an amazing idea, and flawlessly executed. It deserves all the praise I've read here. This is an author to keep your eye on.