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.
The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters
Post-apocalyptic fiction is not uncommon, and indeed has been quite unavoidable in recent years. Pre-apocalyptic stories, on the other hand–stories set in the shadow of a known and anticipated end of the world, or at least end of the world as we know it–are rarer. On the Beach is to some extent–much of the novel’s power comes from the inevitability of the radiation clouds’ southward trek–but most end-of-the-world fiction is more interested in the aftermath than in the lead-up.
Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman is very solidly a pre-apocalyptic story; indeed, it closes well before the anticipated apocalypse (though with two more books to come in the series, there’s a good chance that the end will arrive). Set in a recognizably contemporary United States, the doom that will be visited on the world comes in the form of an asteroid, Maia: having avoided detection because of its long eliptical orbit, the 6-kilometer-around hunk of rock will collide with Earth on October 3rd. With just months to go before the asteroid hits and plunges the world into chaos, society is in disarray: many people have abandoned their posts to pursue “Bucket List” dreams, suicide is rampant, and mistrust is endemic. With no future to plan for, the physical and virtual infrastructure is collapsing, and a general malaise permeates everyday life.
In the midst of this breakdown is Henry Palace, a recently-promoted detective on the Concord, New Hampshire, police force, who is committed to carrying on as though police work still mattered. He’s a recent police academy graduate, and tries to stick to a by-the-book approach even when the book is roundly ignored both in and out of the police force. When processing what appears to be an all-too-routine suicide (Concord has earned the nickname “hanger town” because of its citizens’ preferred suicide method), he becomes suspicious that there’s more to the case than just another hanging, and finds himself navigating a maze of narcotics trafficking, insurance fraud, and conspiracy theories. Palace is a novice detective, and it shows: he often misses important clues and connections, and chases many dead ends.
At one point I suspected that The Last Policeman was heading in a direction like The Pledge, which is in many ways the anti-detective novel: fabricating a murder around a desperate suicide seems just the right kind of break with reality someone like Henry Palace would have in the face of global doom. But while the novel is thoughtful, and conscious of the genres it’s playing with, it isn’t quite as outside its declared genre as that; Palace does uncover real crimes, but they’re complicated and nuanced by the “unusual circumstance” of the asteroid.