Sunday, July 1, 2012

What Are the Odds? Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman

The Last Policeman is a new type of mashup novel for writer Ben H. Winters, co-author of such titles as Android Karenina and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters: in The Last Policeman, Winters sets a murder mystery in pre-apocalyptic Concord, New Hampshire, creating a suspenseful and thoughtful combination of crime and natural disaster that asks refreshingly everyday existential questions of everyday people.

Winters’s narrator is Hank Palace, a police detective who insists on investigating an apparent suicide—the dead man is a “hanger” whose body is found in a McDonald’s men’s room—because his instincts tell him something isn’t right. “A man is dead,” he says. Of course people die all the time, hangers are common in Concord, and everybody in The Last Policeman is going to die in fairly short order. They’re counting down the months until an asteroid known as Maia will hit. For me, the acceleration of everyone’s demise—and the reactions it produces—is the source of the appeal of a full-on literary natural disaster like Maia. An asteroid is the ultimate unexpected guest who walks in on a static dinner party (or state capital) and changes everything.

It’s Palace’s practical, calm, and consistent voice that makes The Last Policeman work. Palace is a relatively softboiled guy in a pretty hardboiled world, though he began experiencing the trauma of unlikely events as a child, he lives alone, and he loves being a cop. Given the importance of the asteroid, unlikely events and long odds are a big theme in the book. Here’s Palace on the odds: 
But that’s how it works: no matter what the odds of a given event, that one-in-whatever-it-is has to come in at some point or it wouldn’t be a one-in-whatever chance. It would be zero.
The dead man, by the way, worked in insurance, an odds-based industry that’s not a great line of work when the world’s about to end. Of course much more than the insurance industry has collapsed in The Last Policeman: people go “bucket list” to fulfill their worldly dreams, ignite themselves, perpetuate conspiracy theories, take to drugs, stockpile weapons, and slack off at work. But not Palace:
Still, the conscientious detective is obliged to examine the question of motive in a new light, to place it within the matrix of our present unusual circumstance. The end of the world changes everything, from a law-enforcement perspective.
A little later, Palace, an observer of the social contract, notes the continuing responsibilities of cops, saying the public relies on them. And he laments later that the asteroid becomes “an excuse for poor conduct.”

Winters shows us plenty of poor conduct but he also shows us people like Palace who keep on with their lives, solving crimes, serving up eggs, and making espresso. Winters has a light hand in The Last Policeman, balancing humor, darkness, and pathos, offering up lines that made me laugh then sigh. Here’s a female cop telling Palace about chasing someone: “…you know, Palace, this is it. This is the last chance I get to run after a perp yelling, “Stop, motherfucker.”

The Last Policeman, which will be released July 10, 2012, is the first novel in a planned trilogy.

Disclaimers & disclosures: I received a review copy of The Last Policeman from Quirk Books, from Eric Smith, whom I’ve enjoyed seeing at BookExpo America, and who’s a friend on Facebook. Thank you!

Up Next: Riikka Pulkkinen’s True... I’m glad to be back to my usual reading routine after a busy spring!

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