It’s a familiar question.
If someone knew how much time they had left on Earth, how would they respond? Would they try to fit in as much opportunity to do good for others as possible? Would they try to tie-up loose ends in regards to relationships and responsibilities? Would they go on a binge of self-destructive behavior, because “what difference does it make anymore,” or, would they simply give up?
In Ben H. Winters’s, The Last Policeman trilogy (Quirk Books)—the final chapter of which, World of Trouble, will be released in July—readers find themselves faced with this question as the entire world’s time is abruptly and horrifyingly limited.
Although strung together by the thread of a pre-apocalyptic setting, each book involves a different mystery, and the result is a genre-straddling story of a detective crime thriller in a science fiction backdrop.
At first glance, if one were to go by the merely the blurbs on the book, the trilogy seems to be downright depressing. It is set-up as a countdown to humankind’s destruction, six months before impact in Edgar Award winning The Last Policeman, weeks to go by Countdown City, and a matter of days for World of Trouble.
But once the mystery element seeps in, these books take on a whole new character. The reader becomes as wrapped up in solving the crime as the impending end of mankind.
The news of a 6.5 K asteroid hitting the Earth on Oct. 3 with civilization-ending consequences is already common news by the start of the first novel. We’re already seeing how many are facing the news. Many left their job to go “bucket list”, some have spiraled into a destructive behavior of drugs and loveless orgies, and some have become paranoid and violent. There are suicides, spiritual awakenings, and “anything goes” self-expression.
Concord, N.H. detective Hank Palace is tending to the scene of what appears to be just another in a constant string of suicides, when an insurance man is found having hung himself with his belt. Palace is suspicious this may be the result of a murder, and despite the indifference of his fellow officers, he pursues the case. This first book is where readers learn Palace’s desire to do his job, and do some good, is not a common trait among much of humankind.
By Countdown City, the state of society has already deteriorated to the point where cash money means nothing, electricity is scarce, and food and clean water supplies are decreasing. Palace is no longer an official police officer. He has been given an early retirement like most of the force, but his sense of duty remains. When he learns the husband of one of his former babysitter has gone missing, he promises to help find out what happened. Missing persons cases are no longer being pursued, so Palace is on his own once again.
In the final book, World of Trouble, he continues to seek answers to an unresolved mystery involving the disappearance of his own sister, Nico. Readers of the first two books are already familiar with Nico’s involvement with a fanatical group, but also with her own optimistic reassurance that mankind’s ultimate fate isn’t fixed.
With this last mystery being exceptionally personal for Palace, his pursuit of justice remains firm: despite how unnecessary it may seem in the current situation.
Winters does a tremendous job of throwing in reminders this story is not happening in some projected future, but right now. References to history, entertainment, books and music help to establish this, including the “jukeboxes of irony” filled with apocalyptic pop songs by U2, Elvis Costello, and (of course) R.E.M.
The most heartbreaking for me was the state of many of the children in these stories. They not only have to face the same fate as the rest of the world, but in some cases they must do it without the support of loving parents. Palace does the best he can to ease the situation for some, showing kindness and caring for the kids of an old friend who went “bucket list” and left his family behind while the mother wallowed in a state of drug abuse.
Winters himself had mentioned in question and answer sessions about the books, how if he were faced with a similar scenario, spending time with his children would be first and foremost.
To that extent, this book also does something other tales of apocalyptic events (of which there seem to be plenty) haven’t done. He left me a sense of nostalgia and appreciation for the “little things” in life. Even with Oct. 3 fast approaching in World of Trouble, when it seems that nothing is left for Palace but memories such as buying Batman comics, biking with his sister, trips to 7-11, he continues to press ahead.
When the trilogy races toward the end (in more than one way), you find yourself with a spark of hope for the human race, even in just spirit and soul. What will remain after the final page has been read becomes seemingly insignificant. What mattered was how Hank Palace handled his time before this time.
I kept being reminded of the adage that when you look at a person’s gravestone and see the “dash” in between that person’s date of birth and date of death, the simple dash in the middle is all that matters. What did that person do between those two dates with that little time on Earth? After finishing The Last Policeman trilogy, I can say one last thing about Palace.
Hank Palace did his duty, and he did it beautifully.
GeekMom recieved copies of these books for review purposes.