The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters (Part One)

Welcome to Spines and Bindings, the read along book series diving deep into stories one chapter at a time. I’m Dave, you know me as the host, producer, writer, and creator of all the various series under the AIC Stories Podcast umbrella. And if you listen to the podcast, you’ll also know that I’m a HUGE fan of exploring all sorts of good stories. It is why I say in my bio that I’m a “Lover of Stories | Keeper of Tales | Curator of Lore”. 

The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters

In our debut series I’m going to be reading through The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters. This is the first book in the trilogy and it tackles the question of “What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?”.

The full synopsis can be found HERE. 

However, keep in mind that with the Spines and Bindings series we will be reading through and summarizing the story a few chapters at a time, so pick up a copy for yourself and read along. 

If you aren’t reading along, you’ve been warned. 

***

I admit, I am not an avid reader of detective and who-dunnit style mysteries. Sure, when I was younger I explored a little Agatha Christie, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. But I grew up a massive fantasy and sci-fi nerd. But a good story is a good story and over the years I’ve done my best to expand my reading to all sorts of genres out of appreciation of nothing more than a good story. 

Oddly, over the last few years I’ve found I read less fantasy and sci-fi than ever before and have discovered quite a few fast paced mysteries and thrillers stacking up on the “books I’ve read” shelf. The thing is, with many of these thrillers and mysteries, while they are fun and fast reads, they tend to be kind of like a candy bar. It tastes great and is highly enjoyable at the moment, but they don’t really stick with you for very long.  

The Last Policeman is a bit different than most, however, because right out of the gate it’s posing a pretty interesting moral question. If you knew the world was ending, what would be the point of continuing to “do your job”, in this case solving murders? It’s a nice twist on the murdery mystery genre that allows this story to sit in a place filled with an ever present feeling of doom and despair, which makes trying to solve a crime a bit more interesting potentially.

This week we will be taking a look at Part One – Hanger Town. The Last Policeman is divided into four parts, each with 5 chapters(except Part Three which is only three chapters), and an epilogue. I know condensing 5 chapters into one long form article seems pretty ambitious because with a murder mystery there is a lot going on, but I don’t want to rewrite this story word for word. 

Spines and Bindings is meant to give a broad(ish) summary of the story itself and focus equally on what sorts of things I’m picking up on as I read it. Normally I’ll also share thoughts on my predictions about where the story is headed, what I think might happen, and various other wild theories as I read that you can all laugh at if you’ve already read the book before me! However with this book I have actually already finished the book and as such won’t be making any predictions because, what fun is that since I already know how the story goes.

If I decide to do the remaining two books in the series, however, I’ll be sure to tackle them in proper Spines and Bindings fashion but for now, let’s meet Detective Henry Palace. 

***

We meet Henry in the first lines of the book, as he stands over a corpse in a McDonald’s bathroom and gives himself an internal pep talk. Through this first section we get to see quite a bit about the type of man Henry is. Driven to do his best but full of a lot of self doubt, always questioning what he’s doing. But he is a natural when it comes to detective work. He’s got that inner sense that won’t let him go until he’s able to put all the pieces together and solve the case. 

There are a lot of famous Detectives in books, movies and television. But Henry isn’t quite the stereotypical detective. He’s not an all knowing, ultra genius like Sherlock Holmes but he is intelligent. He’s not obsessive like Adrian Monk, but he does have that inherent knack for noticing the small details that nag at him until they make sense. He doesn’t play the bumbling innocent with “Just one more thing?” like the legendary Columbo, but he does keep his cards close to his vest until he has something solid to go on. 

Henry is all of those things, yet none of them directly. It’s hard to say what famous story detective he most closely resembles because he’s under such unique circumstances. Not the least of which is the fact that he had wanted to be a detective for a long time and only recently was promoted… just in time for the world to be ending and none of it to matter anyways. 

As we see from the opening when he stands over the body of Peter Zell, the man most want to say died from apparent suicide in a McDonald’s bathroom, Henry can’t quite let some of the small details go. Things aren’t adding up for him. There’s the huge bruise on Peter’s face that looks like he was beaten pretty good, coupled with the fact there is no phone present at the scene and no suicide note. Oh and also the fact that Peter didn’t use his own belt to hang himself with, that was still securely around his waist. Instead, there is a fancy leather belt from a high end clothing company secured around Peter’s throat and while Henry is full of self doubt about it all, there is something that nags at him. This only builds as he meets more and more people tied to Peter that claim “they didn’t really know him that well” only to drop hints that there is more to the story that they aren’t telling. Naomi Eddes, the mysterious woman that shows up at the crime scene as Henry is leaving who turns out to be the secretary to Theodore Gompers, Peter’s boss, is a great example of this. She’s dodging questions and clearly interested in what Henry is doing, but claims indifference as if she is being hassled by Henry even though she is the one doing the digging. Mr. Gompers, Peter’s boss, also claims he kept to himself but isn’t surprised at all to learn Peter killed himself. Even the mysterious Sophia and Erik (Peters sister and brother in law) who claim that they weren’t close with Peter but also claim he was very depressed, and Sophia sneaks in that she loved him very much when seemingly out of earshot of her husband.

It all fuels Henry’s feeling that Peter didn’t commit suicide, much to the chagrin of his fellow detectives, the arrogant Michelson and dismissive Dotseth on the scene as well as Detectives McGully, Andreas, and Culverson back at the office, where Henry decides to pursue this as a potential murder. 

He does have a kindred spirit in Officer Trish McConnell who is introduced as she questions people on the scene at the McDonalds where Peter’s body was found. She’s one of only a few that seems to be throwing her all into her police work, even in the face of the impending doom from the asteroid that is plummeting towards Earth. Yeah, that little detail comes to light early on in a fun scene back at the precinct where McGully, Andreas, and Culverson are all arguing about the latest news about how scientists have revealed the date they’ll tell the world where this asteroid is going to hit in about 6 months. 

Henry finds himself visiting the offices of Merrimack Life and Fire, the insurance offices that Peter Zell was employed at prior to his death. There he meets Peter Zell’s boss, Theodore Gompers, who tells him that Zell always seemed happiest crunching numbers and never really let the craziness and panic affect him, except for one instance at a Halloween party when he flipped out on a woman for dressing up as the asteroid. He apologized the next day and then didn’t show up to work for a week or two. But once returning, he was back to his usual self. All business. 

As Henry looks over Zell’s desk and belongings he meets Naomi Eddes. She too claims they weren’t really that close, however he notices that she seems to be blinking back tears at one point and with her showing up at the crime scene, there’s likely more to the story. 

***

Now at this point in the story I find myself thinking a lot about how mystery and thriller stories like to play with characters. I don’t know if it’s an actual technique mystery writers use, but it seems like there is a need to throw in a bunch of characters, drop hints and nuggets of information that seem to be important, only to find out they were just a distraction to the plotline that was leading somewhere else. 

In these first chapters, we meet quite a few different characters. Which of them are important to the story? Which characters are only filler or even small side stories that ultimately flesh out the world but don’t advance the story as a whole? 

I understand why this is done, the need to create mystery and keep a reader guessing and forming theories from early on. But as I read this I started to feel like I should have been keeping notes in my own little blue notebook, like Henry, just to keep track of all the little hints and clues seeming to pop up alongside all the characters being brought in and out of the story. Instead I took the approach of “not trying to figure it out for now” and just rolled with the punches as the story cruised on. 

Much like Henry, slip sliding on those slushy, wintery roads of Concord, New Hampshire, our story keeps trucking along with all manner of new clues and information being dumped at a steady pace. Which is how we find out about a red pickup truck with a converted engine that burned cooking oil (since gasoline is at a premium due to the impending world ending catastrophe) and gave Peter Zell a ride after work on his final night alive before his death. 

And like all good detectives, whether they are new on the force or not, they always have that guy on the streets that they can lean on for information. In Henry’s case, it’s Mr. Victor France. A drug dealer/addict that in normal times would have been sent to prison, but he’s too valuable as an information seeker, so Henry let’s him be. He doesn’t want to help Henry, of course, but he ultimately decides to help because to refuse would mean being sent up the river on narcotics charges under the new laws put in place after the asteroid impact was verified. Of course, even a 6 months stint in prison for a drug charge becomes a life sentence when the entire world will be destroyed before you get out. 

With that, Mr. France vanishes from the rest of Part One as he’s out seeking the name Henry is after as a lead on Peter’s case.

While waiting for Mr. France, Henry visits Peter Zell’s apartment to see if there is anything there that might be able to help the case. While we get a good picture of the man Peter Zell seemed to be, Henry finds a few items of interest. A note started but never finished, reading only Dear Sophia. Could it be a suicide note that was started but never finished? He also finds a shoebox that’s been taped shut, but has the number 12.375 written on the outside. Taking the note and the box, he calls McConnell who notifies him that she has found Peter’s next of kin… which includes a sister named Sophia…. dun-dun-duuuun!

Back at the office, Henry goes through the contents of the mysterious box he found at Zell’s apartment only to find a whole bunch of newspaper clippings and articles about the asteroid. Zell has made notes on most of them, circling and highlighting numbers and odds and specific details as the world came to understand the impending doom now headed towards them. Turns out he wasn’t turning a blind eye to the doom and gloom, to the contrary he was following it very closely.

***

In many ways this story reminds me of being a kid and asking questions of my parents. Questions they didn’t necessarily want to answer. So instead of getting to the point and answering the questions I asked, they start throwing out a bunch of answers to other questions I didn’t ask. Things that are tangentially related to the questions I had asked but never directly answering it. Almost because they guessed(correctly) that if they threw out enough random information in a hurry then I would stop thinking about the fact they never actually answered my question in the first place… But that’s a frustrating realization to come to and why I think most mystery novels like this end up losing my interest. 

When we switch gears in the story and suddenly are jumping into a story involving Henry’s sister, Nico and her husband Derek who never came home and then jumping into a character from Henry’s past named Alison that he is dreaming about… well my interest started to wander. 

Especially because, after just the briefest introductions, we jump back to Henry going to meet Sophia, only to find that she isn’t there according to her husband Erik. He claims she left early that morning, she’s a midwife, for an emergency client call. He’s shifty, seems overly friendly, but he IS a minister serving at a local hospital and these are trying times. Erik is pretty adamant that Peter and Sophia weren’t close but that Peter had been suffering from depression for quite some time. He paints a very different picture of Peter than anyone else Henry has spoken to so far before ushering Henry out the door so he can bring his son to school. 

But as Henry sits at a diner having breakfast he thinks about how Erik had to have lied to him about Sophia being home because there was a fresh blanket of snow covering their property and no one had left since before the snow fell. 

More mystery, more clues pointing to yet another possible suspect. Mystery stories are funny that way, they almost make you paranoid in a sense. To the point where you start to look at every single character that is introduced as the possible solution to the answer of “Who-Dunnit?”. 

Except now we hit that point in the story where everything seems to be pointing to the fact that it WAS Peter Zell that did it. That Henry is chasing shadows and in reality, Peter killed himself. This is seemingly confirmed by the coroner, Dr. Alice Fenton, as she performs the autopsy and declares it a suicide. Of course for Henry things aren’t adding up still, something doesn’t FEEL right, but he has no solid evidence. 

Leaving the coroners office he finds his sister at his car, begging him to help her find out what happened to her husband that never came home. She insists something bad has happened and Henry wants nothing to do with finding him. He feels like this guy was trouble for his baby sister, but when she breaks down crying… he can’t help himself and agrees to help find her husband for her. 

And that is a good place to leave things for this week. It’s interesting to me how this book switches it’s flow between being all in on the details and surety that this is a murder to getting mired in all sorts of minutiae and details that you can’t help but feel are only intentional misdirection. But we are a quarter of the way through the book, the first part, Part One – Hanger Town, is complete. It’s been nearly 48 hours since Peter Zell was found dead and Henry Palace is seemingly no closer to even proving it wasn’t a suicide than he was in the opening paragraphs of the book. And if it WAS in fact a murder, he seems to be out of leads and time is his enemy if he hopes to find this potential killer.

By the time Part One and these first five chapters end, we’re left facing the reality that this story might not be just about solving the case. On a deeper level it’s beginning to scratch at the question of just what would you do if you found yourself in a position like the characters in this book. You know the world is ending and your days are numbered.

What’s the point of solving a murder… or of anything really… if an asteroid is going to wipe out the Earth in 6 months? How long would you keep trying to effectively do your job before you just threw your hands up and said “Screw this” because time is short and you want to try to do all things you always hoped to do someday before that someday isn’t an option anymore? Or, how long until the despair and depression over the impending doom made you crack and you decided life just wasn’t worth living anymore, so you’ll go out on your own terms? 

We see all of these scenarios playing out in the various characters we’ve met so far, from Mr. Gompers day drinking on the job to Henry striving to be the best detective he can be, or even Dr. Alice Fenton who tells Henry that doing her job as a coroner IS what she has always loved to do.

***

There are some interesting notes about the writing style I wanted to mention, however, before we say goodbye for this week. 

Ben Winter rides a nice balance of introducing our main character and the world we are entering. There’s something very enjoyable about meeting our characters, and being introduced to this world, in the way the author chooses to introduce us. 

Information is given as it is discovered by the characters, we don’t even get the main character’s name until the very end of the first chapter, and that is only his last name. Of course, it’s given in the book synopsis so if you read that you already know it, but if not our main character is just a set of eyes we are seeing this story unfold through. Sure, there are some stretches where Henry is driving from one location to the next and he’s kind of zoning out thinking about things that serve as a bit of an exposition dump to fill in some of the gaps and build a little more of the world around him. But by and large they are done well and help the story along, even if some of them feel a little long and strung out.

It’s refreshing to have a story start right in the thick of it like this. No big setup, just right into the story that’s already unfolding. It’s one of my favorite approaches to storytelling. As Terry Brooks talks about in his book “Sometimes the Magic Works”, no story begins out of nothing. There really is no beginning because everything picks up in the middle of something else. The key is to just find an interesting jumping off point for the story you want to tell and hitting the ground running.

Of course, I’m paraphrasing that, but The Last Policeman takes full advantage of that approach.

As I mentioned earlier,  I’ve not spent a lot of time reading crime mysteries over the years, and had never heard of this book prior to it being recommended as the next story we were going to explore in the AIC Stories – Story Club. The story club is for members of the AIC Stories Discord server to explore and then discuss a different book or movie once every month or so, basically a virtual book/movie club. If you want to join you can find the link right HERE. Anyways, where was I?

Oh yeah, crime stories. 

There is something of a pull to the main character for me, a bit of an outsider when compared to his co-workers. Someone that is trying to toe the line between trusting his instincts to steer him in the right direction while second guessing and struggling with his own confidence in his abilities. Someone that has waited forever for his big break and now that he gets it, the world is ending so it doesn’t really matter. I think a lot of us have been in those positions before, and I’m pretty quickly influenced by just how relatable Henry seems to be. Even if he may be a bit of a cliche style protagonist, the flawed and reluctant hero that is just trying to do the right thing in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. 

Join me next time for Part Two – Non-Negligible Probabilities,  of The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters. We’ll find out which of Henry’s leads seem most likely to lead to something relevant, explore a side story or two, and see the continuing impacts of a world falling into ruin.

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