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

The middle section of most mystery and thriller stories are where the real action begins to unfold, and The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters is no exception. We’ve got multiple leads to chase down, shoot-outs with the cops, a whole bunch of new revelations about the case, and even a mysterious flirty woman that’s been hiding information from the detective.

Welcome back 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”. 

This is our journey through The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. This article will cover Part Two – Non-Negligible Probabilities and the 2nd five chapter section of the book. Technically that would make this chapters 6-10, but this book isn’t laid out that way.

Just a reminder: The Spines and Bindings series WILL be discussing spoilers up through the entirety of the book up until this point. If you haven’t read the book previously and don’t want it spoiled, be sure to read at least up to this point FIRST, then proceed through this article.

If you want to get caught up with a refresher, be sure to check out Part One of this Spines and Bindings series HERE.

***

Ok, so the story picks up with Henry Palace(our protagonist and new detective) being woken up real early in the morning by a wise cracking Victor France. If you recall, Victor France was a low life drug dealer on the streets that Henry is using for information. In exchange for the information Henry looks the other way with Victor’s dealings.

Victor says he has information on the modified truck that Henry asked him to look for, and he has a name, but before he’ll provide it he wants Henry’s assurance that this is it, he’ll leave him alone and let him live out the little bit of time left on Earth in peace. Henry agrees and Victor gives him the information he wanted.

Making his case to AG Dotseth, Henry is looking for the ok to pursue this further now that he has a new lead on the potential murder of Peter Zell. Dotseth, in stereotypical “tough guy cop attitudes”, busts Henry’s balls a bit but then tells him if he wants to pursue it that he should pursue it.

It’s interesting because this section of the book and story really begins to lean heavy into the idea of exploring just how different people would react when faced with the end of the world. For Henry, he’s dreaming of an ex-girlfriend but upon waking comments on how he’s not dreaming about her specifically or the life “that might’ve been”, rather he’s dreaming about not wanting to die.

In the face of the world ending, his only option is to throw himself fully into his work as a distraction from wrestling with the impending doom. Henry isn’t the only character to take this approach, as we saw Dr. Fenton and Dr. Wilton both saying essentially the same thing when Henry asks them if they’d ever kill themselves. They say no because they are happy with their lives and don’t want to throw them away, so they continue to pour themselves into their work until they can’t anymore.

Of course other characters are taking much different approaches, such as denial or outright despair, but we’ll see more on that in a bit.

With Henry throwing himself into his work and Victor France giving him the name he needed, we meet J.T. Toussaint. He’s the owner of the modified truck Henry was searching for and Henry goes to pay him a visit. J.T. is a mountain of a man, all gruff and muscle, intimidating to say the least. Turns out he and Peter were childhood friends that had drifted apart until the news of the asteroid hit when Peter reached out and they rekindled their friendship a bit. J.T. tells Henry how they’d hang out, drink some beers, and they were going each week to watch a serialized movie showing in town called Distant Pale Glimmer.

That’s why J.T. had picked Peter up from work the night before he was found dead. But he tells Henry that Peter had wanted to walk home after they had some beers so that was the last he saw of him. Henry asks about the big bruises on Peter’s face and J.T. tells him Peter said he fell down some stairs or something, but he didn’t know for sure.

Henry, thinking about his fathers lessons on motives as a child, determines that J.T. is telling at least most of the truth and that he didn’t have anything to do with Peter’s death.

Upon leaving, Henry hits some ice on the road and crashes his car into a tree. Unusual because he had chains on all his tires and all of them mysteriously popped off and came off after he left J.T. Toussaints. Doesn’t seem likely, so he questions his co-workers back at the precinct about the possibility of that happening. They give him crap for being paranoid and tell him he probably forgot to latch them properly. He’s not convinced but dives back into his work.

While at the precinct he goes and has Officer Frank Wilentz run J.T. Toussaints name through the system, looking for any criminal background that may shed light on the situation. While they wait we find Henry asking Frank if he’d ever kill himself. Frank tells him he’s thought about it but no, he wouldn’t because he’s a coward.

***

This is another interesting theme through this section of the book that really begins to pop up commonly. As Henry appears to be throwing himself into his work, unconcerned or unwilling to worry about the doom on it’s way from the asteroid, we’re shown how in many ways he’s actually pretty subtly obsessed with it. Between the dreams of Alison and the life that could have been, stray flashbacks to “better times” with his family before his parents died, to his constant asking of others if they would ever kill themselves.

Sure, it feels fitting for this character or anyone in this situation with a world ending event looming, to ask these types of questions. But Henry seems in many ways like he is struggling with finding the answer to that question for himself.

How many times have you wondered if you were doing the right thing? Wondered what the “right” direction or path forward was? Felt uncertain and lacking confidence in yourself to the point where you start looking hard at what everyone else is doing to find some sort of indication of where you sit? And while all of that is going on in your head, all you can do outwardly is stay productive, focused on your work or passions, and strong for those around you that may need you to be strong.

I don’t know about you, but this was something I could really relate to on many levels.

***

Turns out J.T. Toussaint is basically a boy scout. Frank tells him there’s nothing on his record other than a parking ticket from years before. Another dead end for Henry, time to head up to the office and look at the notes again.

While up there we get a look at Detective Andreas, who seems to be fully spiraling down the denial path. He’s latching on to theories about how maybe the scientists have missed something, videos online that claim to show proof something is off with their calculations, and in general he’s become openly obsessed to the point he’s given up on his police work. But it’s during this time that Detective Culverson gives Henry information about his sister’s missing husband.

Now, I have to admit something. At this point in the story we’ve got two pretty clear storylines happening. The case of Peter Zell and of course the world ending asteroid on it’s way. Which is why this whole side story with Henry’s sister Nico and her husband Derek is just kind of bizarre. I won’t skip ahead past where we’re reading for this week, but it does get stranger and I can only assume it’s something we see pay off in the 2nd and 3rd books of this series. But in the context of THIS book, it seems very out of place and I find myself not really caring about this sub-story all that much.

The only thing it adds in the moment is a glimpse into Henry’s childhood, his relationship with his sister, his parents being dead, and maybe a little more about how he’s struggling below the surface with his own looming death and the end of the world. But this information feels a bit like filler at this point. Your mileage may vary.

The short version is that Derek, Nico’s husband, has been arrested and is being held in a military prison. When Henry gets 5 minutes to go see him, Derek stays cryptic and secretive and refuses to tell Henry anything that might help get him out of prison. Times up and Henry is escorted out and now he’s got to break the news to Nico.

She doesn’t take it well, we get a flashback look at Henry and Nico after their parents died as well as a glimpse at how she has “unwavering powers of disbelief” and always has. Henry gets a bit short with her and she seems heartbroken, which makes Henry feel bad but “what can he do?”.

He feels bad and does the only thing he can think of, calls his ex-girlfriend Alison Koechner.

During this time he’s also still being nagged by how the chains came off the tires, trying to figure out how someone would have been able to sneak Peter’s body INTO the McDonalds bathroom, and how he basically feels stuck. Missing a call from Sophia, Peter’s sister, doesn’t help because she tells him the same thing as Erik did – He’s even suspiciously whispering in the background of the voice message telling her what to say. Once again we’re left feeling like the leads have dried up and the case is going cold.

***

Until, that is, plucky young upstart Officer Trish McConnell saves the day with a brand new break in the case. I know, that sounded a bit snarky. It’s just that this book goes to the well over and over and over again. Build up to big new clues one at a time only to have each one turn out to be a dead end so all is lost. But wait, there’s more! Suddenly a new clue arrives just in time to start the next chapter. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but it IS something in the pacing of this story that began to wear a little thin by this point.

Anyways, McConnell has found Peter Zells phone and once she and Henry examine it they find out some interesting new facts. First, he’s been calling his sister Sophia even though she said they “weren’t really that close”. Second, multiple calls to J.T. Toussaint are present, including the day he died. Third, a mystery number shows up in the call logs. A number that he calls every day, going back weeks and months, at exactly 10pm every night.

Henry decides to call the number and the phone is answered by none other than Naomi Eddes. The secretary to Mr. Gompers, Peter’s boss, and the woman that showed up at the McDonalds the morning Peter was found dead. Henry insists they meet because she needs to explain what’s going on, so they meet at the diner Henry frequents and Naomi plays coy and mysterious. Spending most of the initial conversation dodging his questions and borderline flirting with Henry.

Finally though, she opens up and begins to spill what she knows. As it turns out, while she still insists she wasn’t really that close to him, she’s been helping Peter break free of a morphine drug addiction. She tells Henry how Peter told her he had decided to “try out a new lifestyle” after the news of the asteroid became certain. But something went wrong and he decided he needed to get clean. That’s when he snapped at the woman at work in October and then went missing for a few weeks before coming back like nothing had happened. During that time she helped him and since then he’d call every night at 10pm sharp to check in and so she could make sure he was staying clean. She also tells Henry that she was at that McDonalds that morning because when Peter didn’t show up to work, she KNEW he’d be there. He’d told her that if he ever killed himself, he’d do it there.

Henry asks her if she knew how he got the bruises on his face and she said he told her he fell down some stairs but she didn’t know for sure because… “she didn’t know him that well”. Same story from everyone it seems. But this new information really digs into Henry’s mind and like a puzzle piece falling into place, he wakes up early the next morning in an “A Ha” moment.

At this point the story is ramping up once again and getting real fun. Things are happening quickly, questions are beginning to be answered, and bits of the puzzle are falling into place. Henry lies to the toxicology department, telling them Dr. Fenton ordered Peter’s blood to be tested, and then tells his co-workers how he’s figured out what that number on the shoebox was for. 12.375 was essentially a risk assessment Peter had made to compare his chances of dying from a drug overdose to his chances of dying from the asteroid. This is how he decided to make his “lifestyle” change. All of the detectives, minus Andreas who seems to be spiralling further and further into his despair, decide this is enough to warrant a visit to J.T. Toussaint once again. Especially with the timely information showing up that while J.T. was completely clean, his father was a noted drug dealer.

They have their how solved on how Peter got the drugs, they think they know why? Now J.T. needs to fill in the rest of the blanks. Though Henry still doesn’t think he killed Peter.

The meeting with Toussaint goes horribly wrong. They find out Peter was the one that brought the drugs to J.T., not the other way around. Peter ran out of his supply in October but he and J.T. would still go watch Distant Pale Glimmer and have some beers each week, but that he doesn’t know what happened to Peter. When asked about the bruises on Peter’s face, J.T. once again says he told him he fell down some stairs, but “didn’t know him that well”. The detectives, other than Henry, don’t believe he’s telling them everything so they start making threats that if he doesn’t start talking he’ll rot in jail until the asteroid hits.

J.T. makes his own risk assessment and attacks Henry, stabbing him just under the eye before trying to escape. While Henry tries to stop them, the other detectives open fire and J.T. Toussaint is killed. Another lead gone cold.

While getting treated for his injuries, Henry is involved in yet another “would you kill yourself” conversations, this time with the doctor stitching him up. Somehow her answer lets Henry figure out HOW Peter was getting the drugs and he pays a visit to Sophia.

With her husband Erik not present, she speaks openly with Henry finally. Tells him how Peter had stolen her prescription pad and when she finally found out in October she confronted him and he admitted it. Henry asks why she didn’t tell him this information sooner but they are interrupted by Erik arriving back home who basically takes over the conversation. He tells Henry they didn’t say anything because of Sophia and Peter’s father who is dying in a nursing home. Why would they want to put him through that when he’s already dying?

With one last question, Henry asks how she knew Peter killed himself at that McDonalds and she tells him “Because he told me if he ever did it, he’d do it there”.

Boom.

Double confirmation.

Case closed.

Henry and Andreas are dragged out to a bar for celebratory drinks that night by the other detectives, and late in the evening the two of them are outside talking while the party roars on inside nearby. Henry apologizes for being a jerk to Andreas earlier about needing to just let go of the conspiracy theories and get on with his life. Andreas laughs it off, says it’s no big deal. Just then a run-away bus comes roaring down the street towards them. As Henry tries to figure out what’s going on, Andreas just says “Oh Well” and throws himself in front of the oncoming bus.

Despair wins again and Henry is left numb.

***

This is where we’ll leave off for this week as it’s the end of Part Two – Non-Negligible Probabilities. We’ll be back in about a week to look at Part Three of The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters.

Before we go there was one more thought I wanted to share about this section of the story. We DO see a lot of storylines SEEM to come to a head. A whole bunch of new puzzle pieces fall into place. But we are left once again to wonder just WHAT this story is about. Are we supposed to be invested in solving Peter Zell’s case? If so that seems to be a bust. Is this really just about Henry Palace throwing himself into his work as a distraction so he doesn’t have to deal with the reality of the asteroid and impending doom? If so, we see everyone else around him going through it but very little of Henry actually dealing with it.

Either way, for the second section in a row we are left with a “false ending”. A story tool that sets the reader up to feel the impact of the “next big clue” that had been missed or hadn’t come to light previously.

By the end of this section we’re left feeling a sigh of defeat and with the abrupt and horrifying death of Andreas as he steps in front of that bus… we’re left, as readers, to be in much the same resigned mindset as Detective Andreas before he steps in front of the bus. This case has gone cold and been closed and somehow we failed.

It’s an interesting option for a story like this though, because it COULD leave a reader feeling like “why bother finishing the story?” because it’s the 2nd time these “Parts/Chapter sets” have ended with our protagonist seeming to come up wrong in everything he’s been after so far. 

Join us next week as we head into Part Three, the pivotal point in the story that is going to lead us into the big finale! New clues come to life, more storylines take shape, and one thing is certain… we are only getting closer and closer to that giant asteroid wiping out earth for Henry Palace.

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