“The Last Policeman” by Ben H Winters – end of the world novel powered by a quiet desperation I can’t get out of my head

The last  policeman Ben H Winters book review The world is ending. Everyone will be dead soon. Everyone knows that. Everyone reacts to it differently.

Hank Palace, recently promoted to his dream job of homicide detective, decides to carry on investigating murders. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it never occurs to him to stop.

His focus, his need to follow the rules, his quiet persistence in his task, affects the people around him, making them uncomfortable, or bemused, or sometimes even hopeful.

This is not a Summer Blockbuster Movie “end of the world” novel. There are no aliens, or zombies. Our hero is not trying to save the world in the next 48 Hours. He’s not even trying to save himself. He just wants to do his job as well as he can.

Actually, Palace doesn’t have much of a life to save. He’s a loner and a misfit. Not the charismatic kind that you find in buddy-cop movies, but the slightly embarrassing to notice kind of loner that people avoid either because that kind of isolation might be contagious, or because of an Uncanny Valley Effect that says that, although Hank looks normal, there’s something a little off about him that’s hard to take.

On the surface, nothing much happens in this book. There is a murder and a mystery, actually more than one mystery, and love and betrayal and lots and lots of deaths but the book feels almost horrifyingly tranquil.

Ben Winters’ writing is first-rate: economical, precise and quietly clever. Peter Berkrot’s narration in the audiobook amplifies this by being undramatic without being flat or dull.

When I first finished the book a couple of months ago, I gave it a three star rating on goodreads.com but I couldn’t bring myself to write a review. I felt as if I’d finished the book but it hadn’t finished with me.

I found my mind returning to it over the following weeks and slowly articulated to myself why the book wouldn’t leave me alone. It’s because, without the intervention of an asteroid, everyone’s world is ending. We will all be dead relatively soon (I’m fifty-seven, neither of my parents made it past sixty-nine, death’s wingéd chariot is starting to tailgate me). We all know it. We all react to it differently. All that Winters has changed in his novel is that everyone is going to die at more or less the same time.

The strongest message I got from his book is that most of us get through the day because we believe there will be an infinite number of tomorrows, or at least too many to have to worry yet, and if we do get that “any day now” warning, we know that the world, and the people we care about, will go on. Which makes what happens to us today, bearable. Which takes away the need to think about why I spent today on a train for four hours to spend tomorrow in meeting with people I don’t know so I can make the same journey back tomorrow night.

I’m an atheist by conviction. I believe that done is done. I know I’m going to die. I don’t believe there will be an accounting. No reward. No punishment. No anything. I thought I understood what that meant but I think I was still holding out on myself until I read Winters’ book.

The people around Palace are making choices. Some of them are pursuing bucket-lists like the activities still matter to them, like goals have any meaning any more. Some are losing themselves in drink or drugs or sex or all three. Some of them are just lost, shocked, adrift, almost dead already. A few, a very few, carry on doing the things they love: making the perfect cup of coffee, or doing what it takes to solve a murder. I realize that I and the people around me, all of us, are acting out these reactions to our impending ending everyday, we just make ourselves forget about it.

Ben Winters’ has taken all this “normal” getting-through-the-day behaviour and put it in a setting that makes it problematic, thereby making our seen-but-too-familiar to be noticed reactions visible.

This is what was unsettling me about the book: it was giving me a lens to see that, in many ways, the end of the world really is nigh and I’m plodding on like I don’t have a choice.

Anyway, I’ve upgraded my goodreads rating to four stars, bought “Countdown City”, book two of the trilogy and I’ve written this review to exorcise my discomfort.

If you’re in the mood for some uncanny reality, give “The Last Policeman” a try.

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