"So then, Doctor. What are our options?"
Dr. Leo Tolkin trembling, almost laughing. "Options? There are no options."
Despite all the official denial and obfuscation regarding the current collective predicament of mankind, the end of the world is a HOT topic in the popular culture right now. Maybe it's because many people feel the truth of the matter subconsciously even if they are not willing to admit it openly, but from The Walking Dead to Left Behind, there's a vision of the onrushing apocalypse out there to suit every taste and political and religious perspective. Much of it is pure garbage, which for me is why it is such a pleasure to stumble across the occasional gem amidst all the dross.
Ben H. Wniters's new novel, The Last Policeman, was written in the grand tradition of the Nevil Shute classic, On the Beach, of wondering what would life be like in a society that knows it is doomed and is merely waiting for the end to come. In Winters's novel, it is not the encroaching radiation from a nuclear war which looms over the eponymous protagonist and everyone around him, but an impending asteroid strike.
Now, I know what you are thinking about how overused this fictional scenario is, but The Last Policeman is no dumbass Armageddon movie. It is instead a very intense and realistic portrayal of a society that is already rapidly unravelling even as its doom remains more than six months in the future. In Winters's chillingly realistic vision, the economy is breaking down as many people either walk away from their jobs to pursue their bucket lists, descend into hopeless substance abuse or kill themselves out of despair. All the while, an increasingly authoritarian federal government is all that stands between America and mass chaos and starvation.
Enter Hank Palace, the last policeman of the title, who despite having served on the Concord, New Hampshire, force for less than two years has been recently promoted to detective because so many cops have already left the force. Arriving at the scene of yet another apparent suicide, Palace becomes convinced that the victim was in fact murdered and sets out to solve the crime, thus raising the question of whether solving a murder case still matters when everybody is going to die soon anyway.
The Last Policeman works effectively both as a murder mystery and as a portrayal of modern society undergoing collapse. Winters keeps his audience guessing--at first it is not entirely clear that Detective Palace isn't just tilting at windmills--and there are numerous unexpected twists and turns right up until the end. Particularly intriguing is how Winters portrays the actions of those who cling to an irrational hope that humanity can be saved and narrator Palace's disgust at both them as well as those who refuse to continue to do their jobs even in the face of utter doom.
If I have one quibble with the novel, it's that because it is the first in an intended trilogy, the narrative ends well short of the actual asteroid impact date. Nevertheless, Winters leaves things off in such a way that I am really looking forward to the publication of the next entry in the series. Overall, The Last Policeman is an enjoyable read that will stay with you after you have finished it, as all great doomsday stories should. It is definitely worthy of inclusion in any future version of my Top 10 End of the World Novels list.
Bonus: "If you are dying, why aren't you scared like I am scared?"