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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What I'm Reading: The Last Policeman

There are plenty of post-apocalyptic novels, but I would bet you have not read a pre-apocalytpic novel.  That is exactly what you get with Ben H. Winters' The Last Policeman.  In fact, there is no other way to introduce this novel than by saying its setting is pre-acolcolypse.  The reaction from a reader going to go one of two ways:
1. That's weird or 2. Tell me more!
To the first people, you know this is not a book for them, to the second group, you have them hooked, but there isn't much more to tell without giving things away.

Let me back up first before this review goes too far.  I was predisposed to loving this book. It is published by Quirk Books, the publishers who brought us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, among other excellent novels and survival guides.  Winters, cut his teeth for Quirk writing both Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and some of their humorous survival guides.  But last year he got my attention with the scary and original horror novel Bedbugs.

So when The Last Policeman was getting a ton of pre-publication buzz, using just the teaser line about the pre-apocalyptic setting, I put my name on the reserve list right away.

Okay, back to the novel.  The Last Policeman is the first of a trilogy.  The novel is really set in a world, not too far in the future, where we know a giant asteroid is going to hit earth and kill at least 50% of the world's population.  There is nothing we can do about it.

People react in different ways with the knowledge of their imminent mortality.  Some run off and quit their jobs to follow their dreams.  Others travel the world.  Still more go into deep despair, which is where our particular peek into this imagined world begins.

Our hero, is Hank Palace, a police detective in Concord, New Hampshire (a stand in for any middle sized town, USA).  99% of what the police in this town do is respond to suicides.  Hank, who has not been a police officer long, and has only moved up to detective due to attrition (see previous paragraph), is very earnest.  He wants to do the best job he can, regardless of the asteroid's date with our planet.  So when he finds a suspicious suicide, Hank insists on pursuing it as a murder.

As we follow Hank, we know he means well and we get caught up in his logic, but we also know that he is a bit green and is making some very rookie mistakes.  But we follow him because as others often remark, he was meant for this job.  Hank does not care that his case doesn't matter "in the grand scheme of things," since there is no more grand scheme to worry about.  He simply loves being a detective and wants to keep going.

Along the way, Hank fills us in on how the asteroid was discovered, how the world was informed of its seriousness, and how people are reacting.  We see what a society who has given up on any future looks like.  Cell phone service is spotty, for example, because no one is bothering to keep up the infrastructure.

Hank and his hardboiled, earnest, but not too good at his job voice is why you read this novel.  Yes, the pre-apocalypse story line is an alluring entrance point, but without Hank, the asteroid would not loom as ominously.

The Last Policeman reads like old fashioned hard boiled detective novel, albeit with a huge dose of the macabre.  Along the way of looking into the life of his victim, Hank uncovers the real story and begins a new one.  I won't say much more, but the murder/suicide mystery is resolved well and the door is opened to a story that can easily carry 2 more novels leading up to impact day-- only months away.  Talk about a ticking time bomb.

Many reviews note how the mystery storyline is good, and while I agree, I think the story is more than a mystery.  It fits more into the true definition of psychological suspense.  It is disturbing, unsettling, and uneasy first with a good crime plot second.

The world building is good here too, in fact, it felt more real than much of the post-apocalyptic stuff I read and love.  There is no supernatural event here, no killer flu, no terrorism; just the fact that our planet is adrift in a universe of debris that could hit us at any moment.

The marketing campaign for the book asked people to answer the question of what they would do if the world was going to end. Click here to read some answers.  You cannot read this novel without asking yourself the same question.

Three Words That Describe This Book: endearing narrator, pre-apocalypse, thought provoking

Readalikes:  I am not sure if all people who like a post-apocalyptic storyline would automatically enjoy a pre-apocalyptic one.  I do, but the feeling you get when reading the post-apocalypse books if very different than pre-apocalypse mostly because when you read about the post situations, the stories are all about how society rebuilt, while here in the pre story, it is much darker.  Everyone is alive still, but they all know they will probably not be for long and there is no action they can take, no rebuilding they can do, nothing really.  It is more macabre, creepier, and more anxious a story when we are talking pre vs post apocalypse.

There will be overlap, so feel free to seek out post-acaoplypse stories, but I want to offer you a few choices which recreate the tone of this novel.

The first book that came to my mind when I was reading Winters' novel was Never Let Me Go by Kazou Ishiguro.  In this dystopian novel, we follow the story of some children in a British boarding school, who come to find out their they are only alive to have their organs harvested.  Click here for more on this disturbing and unsettling read.  This is as close to pre-apocalypse as you can get, and the feelings I had when reading both were similar

Second, fans of Mira Grant's post-zombie-apocalypse thrillers in the Newsflesh series will be intrigued by the conspiracy which is hinted at right in the last pages of The Last Policeman.  It will take the second book here to see if this readliake option holds its weight, but I will bet on it for now, especially because Hank's sister is leading the charge in the search for the truth as The Last Policeman ends.

As for a third option, if you want to read a modern take on the hardboiled detective who tries but is not completely cutting it, I would suggest he backlist option, Huge by James Fuerst. The novel follows a young, troubled boy who thinks he is Sam spade.  Click here to read my full review.

Fourth, The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker combines the pre and post apocalyptic angles nicely.  I will have a review of this novel up soon, but to tide you over, here is what was said at the July meeting of the Berwyn Public Library's Book Lovers' Club:
This book is set in modern times in the not so distant future.  The earth’s rotation slows down and the days and nights get longer.  Told over the course of a year from the point of view of a 6th grade girl who doesn’t have the usual teenage angst.  Having a young girl as the main character frees the author from delving into the scientific or economic issues.  Since it is solely from her perspective, what happens is on a very micro level.  It is a very interesting what if; how would it affect you and the people you know? It ends with a sort of we were here statement. I found the premise to be very interesting. 

Finally, for those who want more scientific information about asteroids and their ability to destroy life on earth, click here to see Winters own research.


Marlise said...

Your review brought to mind Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. I think it might also have that same "pre-apocalyptic" appeal for some readers.

Becky said...

Thanks for the suggestion Marlise. It is always nice to hear from former students, who have job in RA too.

Rebecca said...

Ooh, this was on my reading list already but I'm moving it up thanks to your review - I love post-apocalyptic, but there is usually never enough backstory for me (I always want to know what leads up to the end of the world!) so this really sounds intriguing to me!