“Aren’t we all depressed, Detective?
Under the weight of all this unbearable immanence?”
– The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
So when I heard that Winters was releasing a murder mystery with an apocalyptic backdrop, I literally could not wait to get it in my hands.
“In a little more than six months, according to the most reliable scientific predictions, at least half the planet’s population will die in a massive cataclysm. A ten-megaton explosion, roughly equaling the blast force of a thousand Hiroshimas, will scorch a massive crater into the ground, touching off a series of Richter-defying earthquakes, sending towering tsunamis ricocheting across the oceans.”
The real story is Henry Palace. Called to the scene of what appears to be a suicide, all of the other investigators involved have already immediately closed the case in their minds – suicides are an almost daily occurrence at this point – but Palace isn’t convinced. Something just doesn’t add up. So, instead of forgetting about the dead insurance guy in the McDonalds bathroom – and giving in to hopelessness, like everyone around him – Palace investigates further…
… and uncovers something truly criminal.
The Last Policeman is a masterfully intricate police procedural – one that mystery fans will undoubtedly enjoy – but the brilliance of this novel comes in the way in which Winters examines how humankind reacts when faced with utter annihilation. Many people just walk away from their responsibilities (job, family, etc.) and try to accomplish goals on their bucket lists. Others opt to drug themselves to the gills and await the end in stoned oblivion. Some see the looming apocalypse as an opportunity to do evil. Some actually prepare for the aftermath…
Winters asks the question: with only six months until the end of the world, what would you do?
Although this novel works beautifully as a mystery, I would ultimately categorize it as apocalyptic fiction. The storyline is strewn with apocalyptic pop culture references – R.E.M.’s “It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, Nevil Shute’s 1957 classic On the Beach, etc. – and the dark tone of the narrative is decidedly apocalyptic.
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for the last two decades and has written thousands of reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and BarnesandNoble.com. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
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