If an asteroid were screaming towards the Earth and life was certain to end, what is the point of trying to solve a murder? That’s the question we’re faced with in The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters, and it’s a question that only leads to more questions as they mystery deepens. Part detective mystery, part thriller, and part sci-fi/PRE-apocalyptic fiction, this series is unlike anything I’ve read.
It’s book one of a trilogy and I was recommended this book by members of the AIC Stories Discord as it was chosen for our monthly Story Club discussions, which you can hear our thoughts in that episode right here: Story Club 003 – The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters
Because I’ve covered it both on the podcast AND in my read along series here on the website, I’ll be keeping this review a little shorter than normal.
So let’s get to it.
“What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?
Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.
The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares.”
I really enjoyed the entire concept of this book (and this series, presumably). It turned into a great thought experiment as we see more and more of the world begin to crumble around Henry as he strives to figure out the case of Peter Zell.
Once the story really takes off, we get some beautiful passages that really smack home the emotion and feeling of what a world facing certain doom would feel like. I don’t want to spoil anything in THIS review, but there are so many examples of the different sides of humanity and how people would react when faced with dire news such as this.
While the story as a whole had it’s ups and downs for me, I really enjoyed how the story starts and how new characters and information are presented. We’re rarely given an obvious exposition dump, rarely do we see long sections of the book presented for no other reason than to paint a setting or describe a character.
It starts with the action already underway, Detective Henry Palace standing over the corpse of Peter Zell as he wrestles with the clues he’s seeing. As new characters are introduced they are brought in fluidly and in a way that feels natural to how Henry is coming into contact with them. Granted, there ARE a few moments where Henry is just driving and “thinking” about the case that feel a little forced, but by and large everything flows nicely.
The Not So Good
The biggest issue I had with this book is that I felt like I couldn’t really connect with it. While the premise is cool and the sci-fi/dystopian style fiction SHOULD be sort of up my alley, the detective/who-dunnit style are not. And that’s where the problem sits.
This book is very focused on solving this case, was it a murder, if so then who killed him and why. The end of the world becomes a secondary story, though to me, it was the more interesting part.
With an asteroid set to destroy life on planet Earth in 6 short months the exploration of humanities reactions are where the real interest sits. We get glimpses of it, including my favorite sections featuring a woman named Naomi Eddes and her NEED of a sense of “normal” amidst the chaos.
But those moments are few and far between.
The other biggest issue I had with this book is how often it went to the well of pushing hard on the “it’s a murder” story only to then come to the end of a section saying “nope, clues all point to a suicide”, and then miraculously a new clue or memory pops up to further the story. Almost the classic “But wait… there’s more!” feeling.
It really made the first two sections of the book feel like they dragged on a bit pointlessly, but when that third section gets going, the story REALLY takes off. Personally, the first two sections became a bit of a slog until the last two picked up nicely.
This book(and the case of Peter Zell) feel like one giant setup for the next books in the series, which I get, but in many ways it feels like a wasted story that only wanted to be finished so that it could get on to the (presumably) good parts in the rest of the series.
That includes the biggest question of “After the events of the first book, where do the rest of the books go from here?”.
The Bottom Line
This ISN’T a book genre I normally read a ton of. It’s very possible, in fact absolutely likely, that it was a great book for fans of this genre… just wasn’t for me. That being said, it was still a fun concept and enjoyable read.
I give The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters a 3 out of 5 stars.
If you like detective mysteries, light sci-fi, and a book with a premise that will have you thinking about how you would react in the situation presented… you’ll probably find something to enjoy in this book.
However, that was also the biggest downfall of the book for me. The part that had me thinking and enjoying that journey the most(the end of the world) is only a secondary, side story or setting for the murder mystery.
This one felt like it missed that mark a little bit for me, the balance was a bit off. That being said, I enjoy the thought experiment of looking at the world around us and thinking about how we(and our loved ones) would handle themselves in such an extreme circumstance.
It is entirely possible that by finishing the other 2 books in the series, it may place this book in an entirely different light. But as a stand-alone it felt very much like a “that was fun, but not super memorable” type of book.
Put another way, the book feels like it’s struggling with a bit of an identity crisis. It’s not sure if it’s a Who-Dunnit Detective Mystery or if it’s a Dystopian, Sci-Fi, Pre-apocalyptic thriller… and the story suffers because of it.
Your mileage may vary, of course.
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