Hank Palace is a detective, just like he always wanted to be. He's finally working his first murder case. But with just six months remaining before the Earth is hit by a gigantic asteroid ending life as we know it, does law and order matter any more? All over the world people are giving up their jobs to "go bucket list" (try and do all the things they always wanted to before they die) but Frank is determined to do his job to the very end.
You can't help but feel sorry for young Palace, finally making detective but only at a time when no one cares any more. No-one even believes that the death he is investigating, the apparent suicide of a quiet, lonely insurance actuary, is in fact a murder. With death looming anyway people are taking their own lives in droves. Nonetheless, Palace finds the death suspicious and continues his investigation in the face of his co-workers' derision. In the meantime he also has to deal with his sister Nico, who begs him to help find her missing husband, Derek, and with his own recurring nightmares of the approaching end.
The book is part whodunit, but also partly a fascinating portrait of a world coming to an end. The internet and cell phone networks are failing with no-one willing to repair them. Petrol is rationed and only available to the police and the army. New buildings are abandoned halfway through construction and crops rot abandoned in the fields. Yet some people struggle on with their daily lives, working in coffee shops and restaurants. Some schools even remain open filled with children learning for learning's sake.
It makes makes you ponder what you would do if you knew there was only six months until the end of the world. I got to thinking, would I still keep studying my French course if I was going to die? Then I remembered that I am going to die, and yet I'm still doing the course. We're all going to die, and if there's any point to doing anything at all now then there still would be at the end of the world. At least, that's my take on it.
I read a lot of books about the end of the world, but it makes a change to read one about something that could actually happen, though it probably won't within my lifetime (according to astronomer Phil Plait the odds of this are one in seven hundred thousand). The subject matter is a little bleak, but the story isn't over all, except perhaps for the ending, which I don't want to spoil. In places it is blackly funny and in others it is about the triumph of the human spirit. I found myself greatly admiring the attitude of some of the characters, such as the coroner who continues her work with the same grim professionalism, and the poet who wants to write "one good one before the end."
The Last Policeman has a noir feel to it with a sci fi twist, a little reminiscent of Bladerunner. It will appeal to fans of police procedurals who are looking for something a little different from the norm. Surprisingly it's is the first book of a trilogy. Ben H. Winters manages to cram two more stories starring Hank Palace into the short span of time remaining before the asteroid hits. The second book, Countdown City, will be available from July 16, 2013. I will be counting the days.