Detective fiction detective novel Discussion of author’s portfolio Review of science fiction

The Last Policeman & Countdown City, by Ben H. Winters

Quirk Books, Philadelphia, 2012

The Last Policeman Series

To my surprise, I liked both books in “The Last policeman” series rather a lot. I hadn’t read detective novels since I went into a sort of mad Kurt Wallander-marathon a couple of years back and read everything Henning Mankell had written back-to-back. That did it for me, detective novel-wise. So I was a bit loath to take up The Last Policeman. Here’s the thing though: Ben Winters writes plainly but very well, understating rather than overstating; being succinct rather than over-indulgent; trimming his text to leave just enough to keep the reader engaged and intrigued. You can call it elegant. This, combined with his talent for depicting a pre-apocalyptic (or pre-sub-apocalyptic) world with conviction but restraint, makes for an enjoyable, well-crafted mystery.

Winters’ writing style does not interfere with the prime ingredient of the novel – the plot, the mystery, the conundrum. He writes in the first person perspective, as the main character, Hank Palace, which makes the novel easy to get into and quick to finish.

Countdown City
Quirk Books, Philadelphia, 2013

It is refreshing to read a novel where the author’s style or the presentation of the contents does not intrude on the storytelling. (A case in point: JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst’s novel “S”. I literally do not know how to go about reading it and gave up after the first few pages.)

And Winters has been very clever with his plots in both The Last Policeman and the next book in the series, Countdown City. You have to read with care. It’s packed full of clues, from the very first page. In fact, The Last Policeman starts with this intriguing quotation, which most readers would skip over, but which is actually a serious clue:

“Even for Voltaire, the supreme rationalist, a purely rational suicide was something prodigious and slightly grotesque, like a comet or a two-headed sheep. – A. [Alfred] Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide” (title page).

To avoid spoilers, all I can say the dénouements in both books were highly satisfactory. The last in the trilogy, World of Trouble, was released on July 15, 2014. (No, I did not read the sneak preview in Countdown City – I resisted the temptation.)

A likeable leading man

In “Hank Palace”,  Winters has created a clean-living, conscientious type who sticks to the rules (though they are being broken all around him) and just wants to be a cop. Former detective Palace is waiting for a meteor to destroy most of the eastern half of planet Earth, but he continues to solve murder mysteries and disappearances in a dogged fashion, while the world is ending around him. He has a romantic interest in a girl who is interested in villanelle-format poetry, and  on the whole is a bit sentimental. He lives in historical, cultured, Concord, New Hampshire, wears a suit and tie every day, and adopts a Bichon Frisé dog for a pet. In short, Palace is “the thinking woman’s crumpet”.

Like Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Foyle in Anthony Horowitz’s creation Foyle’s War, Palace comes across as low-key. Foyle introduces himself simply as: “I’m Foyle. I’m a policeman.” Palace says, ”I’m Palace, I’m a policeman”. Neither detective’s humility gives suspects a clue as to their persistence in the face of wars, apocalypses and crooked politics.

The end of the world really is nigh. Now what?

Winters raises questions about what people would do in an end of the world scenario, if the chances of an impact changed from 0% to 100%, and if there were really no other option. He did his research – the lists of thank you’s in each book are impressive – and his descriptions of this state of the world sound sensible and terrible at the same time. Winters gives some idea of what people might, realistically, do – run away, flee in boats, hang themselves in numbers, set up new governments, go to war, etc. These days films and fiction about an apocalyptic scenario are mostly excessive, sanguinary and fantastical. Winter’s depictions are refreshingly antithetical.

Well, we’ll have to wait and see what happens to Palace after asteroid 2011GV1 lands in Indonesia in the next book.

About the author

In 2013, The Last Policeman won the Edgar Allan Poe Award (Edgar® Award for short) from Mystery Writers of America, in the category Best Paperback Original, and it is well deserved. And on April 18, 2014, Countdown City won the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award of The Philadelphia Science Fiction Society (PSFS) for Distinguished Original Science Fiction. Including The Last Policeman series, Ben H. Winters has written seven novels for adults, and also stories for children and young readers, short stories, plays and a musical. The Last Policeman series is published by Quirk Books, Philadelphia, which  (courageously!) also published Ian Doescher’s series William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, three of the Star Wars series, re-written in iambic pentameter.


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