The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters (Part Three)

With new twists and turns in the mystery, a body count that continues to rise, and even the cliche’ “love scene” between our detective and a witness, part three of The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters hits the gas as the stage is set for the final act.

But will we find ourselves any closer to answers or just left with more questions?

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 week we’re looking at Part Three – Wishful Thinking of The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters. Technically this would be chapters 11-13, however as we know, this book is broken down into four parts, each containing five chapters. Part Three is the exception as it only contains THREE chapters, but oh what chapters they are.

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 Parts One and Two of this Spines and Bindings series HERE.

With the case seemingly gone cold for Henry, Detective Andreas killing himself right in front of him, we were left feeling like all was lost at the end of Part Two. However, we jump right back into the story because, big twist and even bigger surprise, SOMEONE calls that helps uncover a… new potential lead.

I know last week I got a bit down on the pacing of this book, how it’s falling back on some tropes in mystery writing that are frankly feeling overused and tired in this novel by the time we reach the halfway point. And that makes what happens here in Part Three even more special in the big picture of The Last Policeman.

Yes, it opens up with another conveniently timed bit of information. Yes it pulls another thread of a storyline that had been left hinted at and dangling since early in the book. But the pacing of this third section is, overall, pretty freaking great. There are a few moments that felt a bit unnecessary to me, but this section is fast and hard hitting.

The bad part about that is that it really makes the somewhat slow pacing of the rest of the book appear even slower in comparison. As I mentioned above, this third section is ONLY three chapters. But Mr. Winters manages to crank this story up beautifully and turn this third section into a true page turner.

***

Ok, as I mentioned to start this off, we kick off this part of the story with Henry going to meet up with his ex-girlfriend that has been mentioned a number of times already, Alison Koechner. It seems she works at some higher level of government and has connections to some pretty high ranking information, which NOW explains why Henry called her earlier in the book when the trouble with Nico and Derek popped up.

Alison gives Henry all the information she has, or that she CAN give him based on clearance for information, about Derek and why he was being imprisoned in a military facility. Turns out he has fallen in with a group of conspiracy theorists that believe the government had built secret bases on the moon in the event of just such an emergency as the Earth is facing now. He decided to snoop around some sort of government base or facility, was caught and arrested, and even though he didn’t actually do anything other than trespass… he’s deemed a terrorist and there is NOTHING that can be done to get him out. He’s going to rot in that cell until the asteroid ends the world.

After giving him the information, Alison asks Henry what he’s working on. He doesn’t really want to get into the Zell case, especially after it seems like it’s been solved and it was indeed just a suicide, but probably out of loneliness or a desire to connect with his ex for even just a while, he tells her about the case.

She agrees that it appears he’s right. There’s a 95% chance it was just like he says, a suicide by a man feeling trapped with the asteroid coming, a man addicted to morphine that is trying to stay clean, and a man that decides it’s just not worth the struggle. But as she points out…

What about that 5% chance it WASN’T a suicide?

I know Henry Palace IS a pretty green detective at this point still, but when this happens I’m left questioning just how unqualified and inept he may actually be. It feels like he’s constantly being reminded(mostly by women that play pretty inconsequential roles in the story oddly enough) of important details he’s either forgotten about, overlooked, or just flat out never considered.

Look, I’m a middle aged dude so probably shouldn’t comment on this, but I’m going to anyways. This story beat is one that I can totally understand women reading and wanting to throw the book through a plate glass window. It feels pretty insulting that on one hand the women are the ones to keep Henry’s case alive and keep nudging him towards finding the answers he needs… and on the other hand they are pretty trivialized as either the former love interest, the rookie cop, or they “mysterious co-worker”… but we’ll get to that.

Anyways, Alison’s prompting causes Henry to realize that Toussaint made the risk assessment to attack him and risk death rather than risk letting them search his house. Why would he do that unless he was hiding something? With that, Henry is off like a puppy chasing a new toy to search Toussaint’s home(which apparently they never did after killing him the day before).

As he leaves Alison, he calls his sister to let her know what he found out about Derek. She sounds resigned but appreciative that he tried. Then he calls Dotseth to let him know he’s heading back out to check out Toussaint’s place a little better.

There he finds Toussaint’s dog, Houdini, coming up out of the basement where he lives. Seeming hungry and confused where his owner went, so Henry feels bad and makes him some bacon to eat as he looks around the house for any clue as to what Toussaint may have been hiding or not wanting them to find. Sitting down to think about it as the dog ate his bacon, he’s interrupted by the front door slamming shut and someone running away from the house.

He gives chase, but by the time he gets outside there’s no sign of anyone anywhere. Standing there looking in the snow at the footprints trying to figure out where the person came from and where they went, it occurs to him that Houdini the dog lives in the basement… so what is in the dog house in the yard?

It would appear the answer is lots and lots of drugs, a gun, and a whole bunch of money. In other words, jackpot. Suddenly we have a potential motive and the case is alive and kicking. Rushing back to the office he fills in the other detectives on what he found, seemingly adopting Houdini in the process, and is interrupted by a phone call… It’s Naomi Eddes and she has more information for Henry.

***

*insert eye roll here*

I know, I know. I’m awfully dang critical of this book. But I promise I AM enjoying it!

It’s just that this section is the EPITOME of an over-used trope in nearly ALL mystery, thriller, who-dunnit style stories and it’s one that, while effective, also leaves me feeling like it’s probably not necessary and if there IS a good reason for it from a character and story standpoint, there’s probably a new way to introduce it.

That being said, it’s one of the most humanizing and real moments for Henry in this whole book.

So… here’s the story. Henry picks up Naomi and she insists he take her out to dinner so she’ll tell him what she has to tell him. He agrees. Once there, she once again plays coy and mysterious, refusing to tell him whatever it is she has for him until they order… which then turns into her asking for just “one hour” of time where they just have dinner and talk like two human beings without talking about the case, the asteroid, or death. She’s starving for a sense of normalcy, which I can understand, and it seems Henry is too.

But it still feels like a contrived concept forced in to satisfy the trope gods of mystery fiction.

They talk, get to know more about each other, she wants to be a poet and he can’t help being a cop at heart. We get some lingering hands touching moments and light flirting over some “mediocre Chinese food” and FINALLY, after dinner is done and the restaurant is closing around them because they’ve had such a wonderful time that they have lost track of time, they end up back at Henry’s place where Naomi will NOW tell him what she had to tell him.

*le sigh*

In the insurance world, once the asteroid impact became a certainty, insurance companies(including the one Peter Zell and Naomi worked for) began to enact the “Contestability Clause” on all insurance claims.

This is a clause set up on virtually all policies that was previously only triggered when someone filed a death claim within 2 years of taking out the policy. With the world ending, however, insurance fraud sky-rocketed and people began filing fraudulent claims just to get a chunk of money so they could ride off into the sunset in a blaze of bucket list glory.

Peter Zell was an actuary, but if you recall from Part One, his boss… old Ted Gompers that had embraced the Mad Men style of workplace and spent his days drinking gin in his office… told Henry that Peter wasn’t doing actuary work anymore since the news of the asteroid… there wasn’t a need. He’d been working on other stuff that Gompers never elaborated on and Henry, ace detective that he is, never bothered to dig deeper on.

Naomi to the rescue though. She tells Henry how Peter had been working on investigating these contestability clauses on insurance claims, just like most in the office had been, and she thinks that maybe he stumbled on to something or uncovered a fraud case for someone notable and that’s what got him killed.

Henry, in his best “Yeah, yeah, that’s right see, and I’m gonna need all the files he was working on see, can ya’ do that for me dollface” display of ace detective skill tells her he needs to see all of Peters files. She isn’t sure she can find them, but promises to look into it… right before they head to the bedroom and Henry get’s his James Bond on and breaks probably all kinds of actual laws as he proceeds to have an intimate night of lovemaking with a witness in an active murder case.

Oh well, the world is ending and it’s sweet that they both had this nice moment together.

Henry wakes sometime in the middle of the night to find Naomi dressed and ready to leave. She starts to tell him there’s “one more thing” before shrugging it off and saying to forget it… presumably because she doesn’t want to spoil the good feeling of the night they just had. But before she leaves she tells him in always ominous fashion, “No matter what happens from here, tonight was real and good and right and she won’t forget it”. And like that… she’s gone into the night.

***

And there it is. The apparently obligatory love interest that’s set up for heart-break or betrayal scene we see in nearly all mystery stories.

I’ll give Ben Winters credit though. The scene was well written and didn’t get into the more “steamy” aspects that so many do. That side of things is all implied and instead the scene does focus more on the humanity and feelings side of things. Like I said, I understand why this scene exists in the overall scheme of the story… but I digress.

Ok, the story is roaring on full steam ahead now so let’s take a deep breath and jump back in.

Henry, after his blissful night with Naomi that wasn’t QUITE blissful enough for him to talk her into staying, is startled awake by a phone call from an angry Dr. Fenton. Two things here. I can’t figure out just what kind of phones exist in this world because they don’t seem to ring… there are just suddenly the voices of whoever is calling yelling into the room and startling Henry awake.

This whole series is really interesting to me because it’s NOT a post apocalyptic, dystopian future story… the apocalypse hasn’t happened yet, it’s only looming. But it IS some sort of quasi dystopian future in what, a PRE-apocalyptic world that is MOSTLY like ours but not quite? I don’t know.

Second. Dr. Fenton, if you don’t remember, is the coroner that Henry convinces to do an autopsy on Peter Zell. She’s ALSO the name that Henry uses to convince the toxicology department to run blood tests on Peters blood, without her knowledge… even though he tells the Tox guy that Dr. Fenton ordered it to be run.

She’s pretty mad at Henry and tells him to get to her office ASAP or she’s turning him in for impersonating an officer.

Once there, he apologizes profusely and is borderline begging her not to send him to jail. If she’d just let him explain why he did it… he’s begging so hard he doesn’t notice that she’s said he was right.

That’s right.

Henry was right. She’s not going to repeat it a third time.

She tells Henry how she got the tox screen back and found something interesting. He had a large amount of alcohol present which Henry interrupts her to say is from the beers Peter and Toussaint had been drinking the night before. She says she also found something else, drugs. Henry says he knows, morphine, right? No… not morphine she tells him. Says there was no sign of morphine at all, including for at least three months prior to his death. What she found was gamma-hydroxybutyric acid… aka GHB.

The date rape drug.

Stunned Henry finally shuts up and lets her explain what all she found. There is significant bruising around one of his ankles/calves indicating he was dragged somewhere after he passed out, likely a trunk of a car. She explains how it appears that someone drugged him to knock him out, then drug his body to the car and somehow snuck him into that McDonalds and made it look like a suicide.

Henry asks her about the bruising on Peter’s face, explains how everyone says that Peter told them he fell down some stairs but she only says that yes, she saw it and while it’s possible that’s what happened she didn’t think that was likely given the rest of the findings.

Bottom line, this was a murder.

Leaving Dr. Fenton, Henry gets a call from Nico. She’s speaking urgently and there’s a lot of wind and sirens in the background wherever she’s calling from. She’s apologizing to Henry and tells him that she isn’t leaving him, she’ll be back for him, she won’t leave him behind… then her line goes dead.

In a panic Henry speeds up to the Military facility where he KNOWS she went and did something stupid. He figures she probably got herself arrested so she could spend the rest of her days with Derek in military prison. Running up to the gate he asks to see his sister, asks about Derek, but the guard says there’s no prisoners at this facility. Just then another guard comes up, the woman that was there when Henry visited Derek the other day, and he pleads with her to let him see Derek. She just stares at him and says there are no prisoners there.

He continues to question it, and they raise their guns and multiple guards now have various firearms centered on his chest. They tell him firmly there are NO prisoners there and he knows if he pushes it they’ll just kill him and be done with it.

It’s then he realizes there are no sirens and no wind here… Nico didn’t call from here… confused and shaken he gets back in his car to leave when he gets a call from Detective McGully.

He asks Henry if he remembers the witness they spoke to earlier, a woman named Naomi Eddes. Well, they just found her… dead… in that insurance office where she worked and he should probably get over there.

***

Now THAT is a good cliff hanger of an ending and a great place for us to stop for this week as it’s the end of Part Three – Wishful Thinking.

Even though we are left once again with a section ending on our only lead turning out to be a dead end, or just dead as in Naomi and Toussaint’s cases, we still end with a solid question surrounding it. With her goodbye message to Henry that night, did she kill herself? Was she killed? Not to mention what the hell is happening with Nico and that sub-story that continues to develop?

I want to mention again, briefly, how this section of the book really took off for me. But that’s a double edged sword because while it was VERY enjoyable to read and felt like the most “page-turny”(yeah I’m making up words now) part of this book, it ALSO pointed out just how off the pacing through the first half was up until this point. I found myself REALLY wishing the whole book had flowed at this pace, each Part only being 3 super solid chapters versus 5 kind of solid chapters.

But either way, Part Three totally sucked me back into the story and was the perfect launch-pad for the grand finale of this book. Though since it’s a trilogy, there are SURE to be a lot of unanswered questions at the end of book one here.

Join us next week as we jump into the (hopefully) HUGE final act! I know, I know… I told you I already read this book, but in case you haven’t I don’t want to spoil ANYTHING for you from the ending. So get caught up and come back here next week for Part Four – Soon They Will, the final five chapters of The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters.

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