I’d have thought it would be difficult at this point to come up with a new and interesting take on the ‘end of the world is nigh’ scenario but Ben H. Winters has done just that with THE LAST POLICEMAN. His premise is that despite impending doom (an asteroid due to collide with Earth in six months and no Bruce Willis handy) newly appointed New Hampshire police detective Henry Palace is compelled to continue doing his job to the best of his ability. And so, when he feels there’s something hinky about the death of Peter Zell, which looks to everyone else like just another suicide, he investigates.
The things that work well in this novel include the excellent characterisations, particularly Henry who is a real standout. Unlike everyone else Henry doesn’t have to ‘go bucket list’ because he is already doing the thing he always wanted to do – be a detective. Unfortunately he won’t get to do it for long but he leaps into this first case with determination and dedication, qualities most others have given up displaying. He’s not ridiculous though, neither overly optimistic nor shying away from the reality of the world’s imminent demise but not wallowing in the tragedy of it all either. While he’s generally pretty upbeat there are some nicely melancholic moments he reflects on his short-ish life (both before and after the asteroid’s collision course with Earth was discovered) and observes the variety of ways others respond to the finality of certain destruction.
The setting, including the physical and psychological manifestations of impending doom are also well drawn. In fact this element of the book is almost understated, indicated by a series of small details that could easily be missed. The hyperinflation, the fact that Henry has to use a bicycle for everything except official business due to oil shortages, the way that different parts of the country seem drawn to different suicide preferences and other similar observations make the whole premise (ludicrous as it might be) feel very believable and draw the reader in to pondering what they might do in similar circumstances. The fact that people around Henry are reacting in a variety of ways to the news adds to this sense of realism.
For me the one element of the book that didn’t work quite as well as these was the playing out of the investigation itself which didn’t have that same ring of truth as the rest of the novel. I know this sounds odd, given that the police investigation is the element of the plot that is closest to a real world event, but I can’t help the fact that it did not feel this way to me. Henry has several stabs at identifying a resolution to the case and none of them, not even the final one, is really based on much more than guesswork and none of them seems terribly plausible at any point.
So if you’re looking for a first rate police procedural then this isn’t the book for you but frankly procedurals are a dime a dozen whereas THE LAST POLICEMAN offers an intriguing premise and engaging characters and I defy anyone to read it and not ponder what they would do in Henry’s shoes. I only discovered after finishing the book that it is apparently the first of a trilogy which, I must say, concerns me a little because it felt to me like the perfect standalone novel so I don’t know that I’ll read the others. However I can happily recommend this to all but the most ardent fans of procedurals who won’t be able to help but pick apart the investigation that isn’t, after all, the heart of this story.
I listened to the audio version of this narrated by Peter Berkrot who I had not listened to before and loved his narrating style. Definitely recommended for the audio book fans out there.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Peter Berkrot
Publisher Brilliance Audio 
Length 8 hours 20 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #1 of a trilogy or standalone?
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