The perpetuating and solving of murders has been one of humankind’s greatest entertainments since the beginning of narrative, from the killing of Hermengyld in The Canterbury Tales to the nightly murders we now enjoy across all of our media. What makes tragic death in this fashion so compelling is actually somewhat simple: By the end, order has been restored; the killer has been found and dispatched, either to prison or death, and there is hope for a better tomorrow, because, really, how could tomorrow be worse? The result, though, at least as it relates to contemporary crime fiction, is that too much of it ends up being numbingly predictable, the cops and killers now archetypes of archetypes.
All of which makes The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters such a revelatory reading experience. The basic algebra of the novel is standard police-procedural fare: A lonely insurance man, Peter Zell, is found dead (from an apparent suicide by hanging) inside a McDonald’s bathroom in Concord, N.H., and only young detective Henry Palace — a man prone to muttering “holy moly” — sees something more than what meets the eye and thus begins investigating Zell’s life for clues to his demise. Simple enough, right? Except there’s this: In six months, an asteroid named Maia is due to plunge into the Earth, and Bruce Willis isn’t sitting on an oil rig in the South China Sea just waiting for his call so he can blow it up. It’s coming and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.
Humanity, as Palace tells us, is not reacting well to the news.
“Last week in Kathmandu, a thousand pilgrims from all over southeast Asia walked into a massive pyre, monks chanting in a circle around them before marching into the blaze themselves. … In the American Midwest” he says, “the trend is firearms, a solid majority employing a shotgun blast to the brain.” Palace’s beat, however, is slightly different: “[I]t’s hanger town. Bodies slumped in closets, in sheds, in unfinished basements.”
Zell’s death — and by extension, just about anyone’s death in these circumstances — is trivial to those still charged with keeping order (those few who show up to work, anyway), and The Last Policeman forces the reader to ask important questions about the value of life when time and inevitability have become the ultimate villain. “The end of the world changes everything,” Palace says, “from a law-enforcement perspective.”
That the existential weight of the sky falling has turned into a tangible reality infects everyone in the novel, so that Palace’s dogged determination to root out the truth of Zell’s demise becomes more than just the duty of solving a crime; it’s also the task of finding meaning in life, both Zell’s and Palace’s and, as it happens, many of the ancillary players who come into contact with both.
That’s weighty stuff for a tightly crafted noir novel to take on, and to Winters’ credit, he handles these questions in the subtext, often allowing for the characters’ hardened dialogue (or, at times, the white spaces of their pauses) to fill in the dread, particularly as it relates to Palace’s shrinking cadre of co-workers. So when Palace’s closest friend on the job, Detective Culverson, tells him after viewing the evidence, which points to Zell being just another hanger, “If you feel like you’ve got to solve it, you’ve got to solve it,” it doesn’t feel like cop dictum.
The old issues of motive still exist, but when everyone has a motive, when a cop like Palace notices “at all times the potential for violence” in just the way people slouch through their lives, including Palace’s own sister and her husband, the normal obstacles of solving a crime become all the more difficult and, frankly, emotionally wrenching. This is Winters’ greatest gift: He’s able to turn a murder investigation into an examination of our own vision of what our ecstatic final days might entail. Will we try all the drugs we always wanted? Will we seek out and kill our childhood bullies? Will we sit oceanside with a drink in our hand, waiting for the cataclysm to sweep us away? Or will we just go about our normal lives, fighting for what we actually believe in, even when it’s all coming to an end?
The Last Policeman asks and answers all of those questions, but also spins a complex and demanding mystery filled with human characters living in the preapocalypse, where even someone convicted of a minor felony will die in prison. In the process, it also contains the most compelling literary conceit in a crime novel since Paul Tremblay’s brilliant narcoleptic PI in The Little Sleep. Even better, it promises that the story isn’t over yet, since the asteroid is still a few hundred million miles away by the book’s close, humanity already digging in against itself.
THE LAST POLICEMAN, Ben H. Winters, Quirk Books, 316 pages