Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman is a book that is going to haunt me for a while. From the description, it sounds like the sort of hypothetical situation you’d ponder in philosophy class. If there was an asteroid heading for Earth, and you knew it was going to cause mass extinctions and probably kill you, how would you spend the last months of your life? What if you were a policeman? Would you carry on with your duties? Would you take the so-called “Bucket List” option? Are there some things still worth fighting for, even though death–for billions–is immanent?
For Hank Palace, there really is no question. He’s a born policeman, and has been a detective for just over three months. When he gets called in to investigate the death of Peter Zell. It appears, on the surface, to be a suicide, which is very common in Palace’s world. Everyone else, from the assistant district attorney down to the patrolmen, agree. But there are just enough that is off about the scene to make Palace’s spidey senses tingle. He presses for permission to investigate Zell’s death as a murder. Since no one cares enough to make a fuss, Palace gets it–though he doesn’t get much help. Zell doesn’t have much family. He didn’t have a wife or children. So there’s an unspoken question, who is Palace trying to get justice for? Zell’s dead and won’t know one way or another. Is Palace after justice for itself, as an abstract concept that’s worth doing battle for?
As Palace asks questions and makes notes and tries to puzzle out Zell’s death, he shows us the effects of the asteroid on society. Maia, the asteroid, has already destroyed big parts of the social contract. Many people have chosen to go out on their own terms. Others have chosen to spend their savings traveling, drinking, and doing all the things on their bucket lists before time runs out. A few, mostly those who can’t afford it, stay put and carry on with at least a version of their lives.
This is a very melancholy read. Winters doesn’t show you much of the noble side of humanity. Cynics and realists would point out that Winters might very well have the right of things if this really were to happen. Palace is one of the few that doesn’t give in to depression or desperation or selfishness. This book forces you to think about whether there are some abstract concepts that matter. In this situation, there won’t be many left that will know if you stood up for principles or how you died. If no one will know, and you’ll be dead, does justice really matter? It’s an angle I’d never thought of before I read The Last Policeman. It’s an angle that I’m pretty sure the philosophy professors never brought up in class because it’s just too depressing to ponder for very long.
Winters does a brilliant job laying out his story. There’s the mystery plot, which twists and turns in a very satisfactory way. We chase down blind alleys right along with Palace and it’s hard to stay even one step ahead of him, so the resolution isn’t ruined by figuring it out early. And there’s the larger plot, about humanity. Winters is skilled in doling out the bits and pieces without belaboring the point that there’s an asteroid on it’s way. Maia is always there, but in the unspoken background. So I suppose, if Winters were the type to hit a reader over the head with things, this could have been an even more depressing book than it was. I feel now that I’ve said that this book is depressing too many times, but to describe the book in just one word really sells it short. This is a profoundly affecting read.