Saturday, July 6, 2013

Book Review: THE LAST POLICEMAN by Ben H. Winters

Quirk Books July 10, 2012 ISBN 978-1-59474-576-8 (trade paperback)

There is no empirical proof that, after I read THE LAST POLICEMAN in the summer of 2012, I thought, “Ben H. Winters has done something exceptional here!  He’s taken the detective story and blended it with dystopian science fiction to create a new genre!”  Yes, it’s easy for me to write that now, two months after Mr. Winters was presented with the 2013 Edgar Award for “Best Paperback Original” by the Mystery Writers of  America. And, on July 3, 2013, Mr. Winter’ book was nominated for the 2013 Macavity Awards for “Best Mystery Novel” by Mystery Readers International.  So while I may have been prescient about how extraordinarily unique this novel is, I sound like yesterday’s news.  This disruption of time and space is suitable for the review of a metaphysical police procedural.

Detective Henry “Hank” Palace works for the Criminal Investigations Division of the Concord (New Hampshire) Police Department.  He’s been called to the local McDonald's because some guy hanged himself with his belt in the fast-food joint’s bathroom.  The dead guy is Peter Anthony Zell.  Hank had only been a patrolman for sixteen months before he was promoted to detective three months ago.  His instincts tell him this is not a simple case of suicide.  But then, nothing is “simple” any more.  In August of last year Hank was promoted because four of the eight detectives from the squad left after the news hit.  It’s now March 20th, seven months since scientists announced “the date.”

“The date that everybody knows is October 3, six months and eleven days from today, when a 6.5-kilometer-diameter ball of carbon and silicates will collide with Earth...Maia, the massive asteroid formally known as 2011GV1—“

People have processed the news of the end of the world in all different ways.  Some are ticking off items on their bucket lists, some are self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and some are sticking to their own agendas.  And Hank has wanted to be a policeman since he was a boy.  So Hank is going to pursue Zell’s suspicious death.  The first interview is with Zell’s boss, Theodore Gompers, at the insurance agency, Merrimack Life and Fire.  Zell was an actuary, the kind of man who kept to himself, focused on his work.  He was a quiet man, although Zell briefly flipped out on Halloween and took a “leave of absence” for a few weeks before returning to work.  Hank also interviews Gomper’s secretary, a beautiful woman with a shaved head whose name is Naomi Eddes—a beautiful woman whom Hank happened to see around the crime scene early that morning.  Then he makes the notification of death by phone to Zell’s sister Sophia Littlejohn.  The next day he goes to her home, but Sophia is a midwife, and has gone to assist a woman in labor.  Her husband, Erik Littlejohn, speaks with Hank.  Littlejohn is the Director of Spiritual Services at Concord Hospital.  He tells Hank that Peter Zell and Sophia were never close, and they saw Zell only occasionally.  After the official EOT had been revealed on television on January 3rd, Zell has been “in a bad place” and “disturbed” by news of 2011GV1. 

Next Hank meets with the medical examiner, Dr. Alice Fenton, who is unconcerned about a bruise on Zell’s ankle.  When Hank asks if a tox screen will be done on Zell’s blood, Dr. Fenton explains that there are very limited resources with the state forensic lab.  She’s ruling it a suicide.  Hank pockets one of the vials of Zell’s blood before leaving the morgue.  Hank then manages to convince the assistant attorney general, Denny Dotseth, to allow him to pursue a homicide investigation.

Hank’s pursuit of the case is sidelined by his own sister Nico, the only family he has left.  Nico is upset because her husband Derek Skeve, is now “a guest of the military-industrial complex,” a prisoner at the New Hampshire National Guard headquarters. He’s been charged with operating an ATV on the military base.  Derek's idiotic act has cost him his freedom when the most precious commodity is (and it always is) time.  The Zell case leads Hank deep into this wretched new world.  There is more violence, more death, a femme fatale, drugs, secret government operations, and, ultimately, the identity of Zell’s murderer. 

The plot is of THE LAST POLICEMAN is constructed with masterful, adept precision, a striking contrast to the instability of the society which Hank inhabits.  Mr. Winters has created a very believable world on its way out, with failing technology, few resources, and many desperate people with motives. Hank’s durability makes him both a natural patsy at times.  Hank Palace is no hard-boiled Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, although Mr. Winters’ prose easily bears comparison to Hammett and Chandler.  But Hank’s level of integrity and dedication makes him an incredibly good detective and an incredibly compelling hero.   Mr. Winters adroit control of the story and the characters, as well as his virtuoso skill as a storyteller, make the first book in this trilogy an instant classic.

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