What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?
This is the question posed by The Last Policeman, the new book from New York Times best-selling author Ben H. Winters.
Set in the not too distant future, The Last Policeman follows Detective Hank Palace – a man faced with an uphill struggle to maintain law and order in a world faced with certain apocalypse. With the impact of asteroid 2011GV1 looming on the horizon, the Concord Police Department find many locals turn to suicide as their “way out”. But while suicide may be an increasingly common scenario, still there are murders that need to be solved. When rookie Detective Palace finds himself confronted with what would seem like just another suicide, his instincts tell him otherwise. Despite overwhelming pressure telling him to give up and stop wasting his time, Palace sets out to find the murderer, and in so doing sets himself on a course to confront some of the deepest questions at the heart of the human condition. What is life worth? What would we do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?
The first thing to say about The Last Policeman is that it really is a very good book. At its heart, The Last Policeman works as an excellent “whodunit”, and keeps suspense going right up to the very end. Set in the first person, present tense, we watch as the tale breathlessly unfolds around us, and discover the clues leading us to the final culprit.
Given the book’s strength as a whodunit then, it is perhaps surprising that the murder mystery element of the text isn’t even its strongest part – far from it. The power of The Last Policeman lies firmly in the way it encourages us to question our own lives, and our own view of the world. After all, what basis does civilisation rest on? What would we do if we knew the clock was ticking? Isn’t the clock ticking for each of us now anyway?
As the story progresses, and the time of impact draws near, we get a real sense of urgency from the characters caught up in the impending apocalypse. Many people leave their jobs and join the “bucket listers”, while others give up completely and hide in their homes. Others, as we have seen, turn to suicide as a way out, while some, like our hero Detective Palace, stick doggedly to their work. Even now, having read the book cover to cover, I’m still not sure what I’d do. Though I am against the idea of suicide in general, the idea that for some people the terror of waiting for death is just too great really did strike a chord with me. I’m not even sure you can really call suicide in this situation “giving up”.
And thus in this conundrum we see why The Last Policeman isn’t just a good book, it’s a great book. As a detective novel, it works brilliantly, but more than that, it forces us as readers to think. I mean really think. Too few books do that these days, and for that, The Last Policeman is to be commended. Looking at the back of the book I see that this is in fact the first in a trilogy. I really can’t wait to see what the other two books hold in store!