The central truth of human existence—nobody here gets out alive—is, unsurprisingly, the one we are most loath to dwell upon. (Some psychologists call it terror management.) But what if the knowledge of your onrushing demise can scarcely avoid being top of mind, not just for a few moments while the plane is plummeting, but for months before a sure and certain end date for all of humanity? What would you do?
That’s the backdrop to Ben Winters’s lovely Last Policeman trilogy, which began with the 2012 novel of the same name, when it is March of the year an asteroid is on course to slam into Earth on Oct. 3. The series moved through the summertime of Countdown City (2013) and has now reached a point just 14 days before impact, in World of Trouble, published July 15. “I was looking for a new way to tell a detective story about the classic stubborn investigator—Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade—who cares when no one else does,” says Winters, 38, in an interview.
He certainly found one. Post-apocalyptic novels are virtually a genre of their own, but a pre-apocalypse is arrestingly different. Across the world, in Winters’s books, people respond to the news of their coming deaths in every imaginable way. There is a steady wave of suicides, even while many people, heads down, keep to their daily routine as best they can. Millions abandon their old lives, including spouses and children, in pursuit of bucket-list dreams—some high-minded, some vicious—before time and the value of money run out.
In the early days, before people start murdering each other for potable water or ground beef, one wild-eyed young man in a university library seems intent on reading every great book ever written. Another character, in one of Winters’s black-humoured satirical jabs, continually stares into his useless iPhone. “I just know,” laughs the writer, “that there will be those who won’t give up their phones no matter what. I took great pleasure in killing off the Internet.”
Then there’s Henry Palace, a cop in Concord, N.H., and a knight-errant. He enters the story investigating a suspicious death no one else wastes time over. It is, after all, just another suicide, one achieved by the locally favoured means, hanging. (In the Midwest, writes Winters—who was born in Maryland to a Canadian mother, and now lives in Indianapolis—“they prefer shotguns.”) Given Palace’s doggedness in the face of his limited lifespan, it’s not surprising that more than a few readers think he has a screw loose. “I’ve had people ask me where I’d put him on the autistic spectrum,” Winters acknowledges. “But that’s not the case at all. Henry is just one of those people doing exactly what he was put on Earth to do. He was meant to be a detective: he’s obsessed with solving puzzles and he wants to restore moral order.”
That’s most apparent in Henry’s relationship with his sister Nico. Six years younger, clever, ruthless and far more devastated than her brother by the violent deaths of their parents years before, Nico is a responsibility Henry will not abandon. She’s his polar opposite, in thrall to mad schemes to save the world, even at the cost of individual lives.Henry works his salvations one human at a time.
The trilogy is a vehicle for Winters to explore those responses and to follow the path great crime novels have always taken. “They all offer more than a mystery, a social portrait actually. Nothing didactic, just an invitation: ‘Here’s something to think about.’ ” Hence the young woman at the Free Republic of New Hampshire (essentially the state university student body) who passionately explains to Palace how the republic has hit an elusive sweet spot. All utopian communities inevitably yield to their dark totalitarian streaks, she agrees, but not hers. This time, there is no time: the asteroid will arrive “before the Jacobins can take over.” (Winters based the Free Republic on the Occupy movement. “I was impressed by the way it self-organized.”)
But—nothing didactic here—the trilogy is a sweet and powerful story of relationships, as Henry desperately tries to patch his with his only living relative, sometime before the end of all things.