The Short Version: After the discovery of Maia (formerly known as asteroid 2011GV1) and it’s impending impact with our fair planet, a lot of people have pretty much given up on normality – jobs, socio-cultural stuff, even sometimes their lives. But not Detective Hank Palace. And when a suspicious suicide crosses his desk, he’s on the case – but what could be worth killing for when we’re all doomed anyway?
The Review: I read pretty much this whole book over the course of a lovely, sunny Sunday afternoon in the middle of Washington Square Park. There were people everywhere – children, students, old folks, yuppies, artists, tourists… if you wanted to check out a pretty decent slice of the folks who make up Manhattan on any given day, you only had to look at Washington Square. And as I read this book, I was wondering about just how fragile our social constructs actually are.
The novel is, for the most part, just a traditional noir-styled mystery: there is a crime that nobody believes to be a crime except for one dogged cop, there’s a dame, there’s an injury to the dogged cop, there’s naysayers on the force and The Man mucking things up, etc etc. All of the traditional trappings. What makes this novel an exceptional twist on those themes is that it isn’t really so much about the mystery at all or even about any of those noirish trappings: it’s about humanity and what we might well do in the face of certain destruction. And honestly I think it’s the genre stuff that allows Winters to really get into the nitty-gritty (pun slightly intended) of human nature.
Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers both deal with apocalyptic scenarios and with humanity’s reactions to them – but neither of those books deal with the absolute end of everything. Which, let’s face it, a massive asteroid strike would probably be. I mean, there’d be some who’d survive and be plunged into a massive, ash-induced winter. So honestly, I’m not sure which would be better – dying right away or dying later – but that’s not the point. What would you do, would you actually do, if you and everyone you knew had ten months to live. Six months to live. Three months to live. And Winters’ depiction of it looks… well, pretty much like I might expect it to look. Plenty of people doing their “Bucket List”, plenty of people finding God, plenty of people killing themselves.
And yet, would law and order remain? Would we still have an economy, a traditionally run society? For a time, probably – but these things would fall apart and Winters drops us right in the midst of that falling-apart period. Cell service is spotty at best, ditto internet. The economy, in a larger sense, is kaput as are a large majority of things like fine dining. Movies still play and Panera is still around… but it’s all starting to get pretty bleak. And so you have to ask yourself what you’d do in that situation. For Hank, it’s obvious – and he’s so… not even squeaky-clean, it’s just that he’s a good guy. He wants to do right, not for some higher power but for himself and for anybody who might’ve been affected by something bad. It’s a form of goodness that’s almost too simplistic to understand – and he is, by most, misunderstood. People just… don’t get it.
But we do. The reader does. We are grateful that Hank is there, a beacon not of ‘goodness’ so much as of ‘normalcy’. Of the way things were. Because this is a deeply scary, unsettling book and it’s nice to know that there’s a good guy there when the lights go out. Here I am joking about reading this book in the midst of a crowded New York park on a blissful Sunday afternoon – but seriously, there was something about looking up and taking in the crowd and just… wondering. Winters does a nice job of setting the stage for the rest of his trilogy – the book ends with six months to go until the big day and there are rumblings of strange government conspiracies that I’ll be curious to see play out over the next books – but really he did something more impressive by taking a pretty typical genre story and dropping it in the middle of a setting that we, as human beings, don’t particularly want to think about. We’ll take our dystopias, our post-apocalypses, thank you – but to imagine the waiting period before the terror… it takes a true existential mind to stare into that unstoppable, immovable abyss and keep on going. But, then, I really loved Melancholia too.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I was actually weighing giving this a higher grade but, upon reflection, the case itself actually wraps up a little too messy for me. The resolution, that is, was just a bit… unclear. I think that might be my failure as a reader (and/or sunstroke) but I was watching the whole thing wrap up and wondering “Wait, really? That’s it?” because it just seemed so… Well, I just didn’t follow Hank’s final jump in logic. But the conclusion itself made sense once we got there – and it was a stark reminder of just how the world might look if/when this all goes down. And that psychological impact far outweighs any issues I might’ve had with the story, because I will not sleep well tonight for having read this book… and that’s kind of great.
(This review originally appeared at TNBBC – check it out over there: http://thenextbestbookblog.blogspot.com/2014/05/drew-reviews-last-policeman.html)