The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters (Part Four)

We left off last time on a cliff-hanger, gut punch moment for Henry. It was a great setup for part four of The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters.

His sister has gone missing and the woman he just spent an intimate night with, Naomi Eddes, is dead. Dr. Fenton has confirmed Peter Zell was murdered and for Henry, the race against the doomsday clock now feels more urgent as we set up for the last part of this story.

Will Henry find his sister? Who killed Naomi Eddes and Peter Zell? Just what is really going on and will Henry crack under the pressure?

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 Four – Soon, They Will of The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters. Technically this would be chapters 14-18 plus the Epilogue, however as we know, this book is broken down into four parts, and we’ve arrived at the final act!

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, Two, and Three of this Spines and Bindings series HERE.

Well now. Part Three was a fast paced burn ending in a cliff hanger that felt more like a slug to the gut than a hopeful look for a positive outcome for Henry. And friends, let me tell you, this last part of the book lays a LOT of information out there in a hurry as all the pieces slide into place.

The big question remains, will it be a satisfying ending to the story?

As I mentioned last week, the pacing in Part Three took a pretty drastic turn from what we saw in Parts One and Two. It cranked up the page turner knob and the story started to fly. This final act does much the same, however at times it felt like we as readers were being asked to “just go with it because it would all be explained shortly”. In some ways it left me feeling a little cheated, more so on the second read through as I write this.

The thing is, I don’t fault the author at all for that because frankly, I don’t know how else he could have approached it. The ending to this story, pre-epilogue, works. We get the case of Peter Zell wrapped up, but since this is book one of a trilogy, there are obviously things left a mystery and new wrinkles uncovered to spur you to read the second book.

We even get a nice epilogue that, if you normally skip them, you really need to read as it ties up the very last bit of Peter Zell’s story and sets the scene for book two beautifully.

***

Alright, let’s get into the story itself, shall we?

Shaken by the news of Naomi’s death, Henry finds himself at the scene of her murder feeling numb, guilty, and really beating himself up over it all. Of course he doesn’t tell his fellow detectives, even though I would think the fact he just slept with her the night before MIGHT be pertinent information they would want to know about.

Whoever killed Naomi found her going through file cabinets in the office, presumably looking for the files that Henry had asked her to seek out. The files of Peter Zell and the last insurance cases he was working on. Naomi had ben shot between the eyes, execution style while facing her killer. Of course no one else was in the building at the time except for drunk old Mr. Gompers, who discovered the body a short while after hearing the shot.

Henry, stunned and upset, does what he always does. He visits the diner he frequents in order to think through this horrible turn of events. As he’s there wrestling with what happened and what to do going forward, another customer starts to annoy him. The guy is sitting close by at the counter, messing with the tv and just being annoying overall. Henry is starting to crack, feeling the urge to just pack it all up and walk away, hiding out until the asteroid ends it all. But, he’s a detective at heart, and so after a little personal pep talk he decides to do what he always does. He steels himself to return to work and solve this dangerous mystery the next day.

After a good night sleep, Henry wakes up and realizes he has one new lead to follow up on. A small lie that was told, but a lie that may have much bigger impact than he initially realized.

***

When he had spoken with Mr. Gompers previously, he told Henry they had moved everything away from computers and only to physical copies. When questioned about the files missing from the cabinet Naomi was going through when she was murdered, Gompers told them that if they are gone then they are gone… no backups.

Gompers lied.

Naomi had told Henry how the insurance companies had been so obsessed with the Contestability Clause that they had pulled everyone into researching claims. And with that much focus on the research, there was no way they weren’t backing that information up somehow. If only to avoid any potential fraud internally.

On his way into the insurance office to question Mr. Gompers, Henry is harassed by some “goon” outside of the insurance office. The kind of person that would be viewed as a religious zealot preaching on street corners about the end of the world… except everyone already KNEW the end of the world was coming.

Henry brushes him off and heads in to talk with Gompers, who initially tells him drunkenly that there are no backups. Getting a chance to play “bad cop”, Henry smashes Gompers glass of gin against a wall and tells him he’s lying and he better start telling the truth… or else.

Finally Gompers breaks, tells Henry they have hard copy backups of everything in Boston. He also begs Henry not to make him get those backups because if he does then the higher ups in corporate will find out all that has happened here in Concord and they’ll shut it all down. If that happens Gompers and his wife will be ruined, no savings, no money… out of a job and waiting for the asteroid to hit.

Here we see a good glimpse into what makes Henry tick as a character. He gets angry with Gompers, but he also lashes out at society as a whole. He feels they are lazy, weak, and in their refusal to get up each day and keep doing their jobs, they are somehow pathetic losers. This is most accurately depicted in this quote from the story, a bit of internal monologue as he turns the screws on Gompers.

“It’s exhausting. People hiding behind the asteroid, like it’s an excuse for poor conduct, for miserable and desperate and selfish behavior, everybody ducking in its comet-tail like children in mommy’s skirts.”

Henry tells Mr. Gompers he has 24 hours to get him those files and then leaves the office, his disgust and disdain for the man boiling over. Outside the office, that same “goon” from earlier starts to get in Henry’s face again. It’s only then that Henry realizes that he’s the same “Harley Biker Guy” that was annoying him at the diner the night before.

Before Henry has a chance for it all to register, the guy is in close and has pulled a gun on Henry and has it jammed into his chest. He’s demanding to know where Henry’s sister, Nico, is. Henry tells him he doesn’t know and that he wants to find her too. But the goon gets angry, doesn’t believe him, and starts to beat Henry senseless.

He insists that Henry killed Nico’s husband Derek, or at the least ordered him killed. He also claims that Nico said her brother had some secret policeman plan to get Derek out of military prison but instead, Derek is gunned down and Nico has vanished. Henry tries to tell him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but the guy won’t believe him. As he gets set to shoot Henry, a loud noise in the street distracts the guy for just a second. Long enough for Henry to break away and reach for his own gun, but due to the beating the guy has given him, he’s too woozy to shoot. The goon takes that opportunity to vanish, leaving Henry beaten and in rough shape on the street, confused and alone.

So… he does the only logical thing you would expect. He goes to the coffee shop he had been at a few days prior when he met his ex, Alison. He tells the guy behind the counter, the owner known as the Coffee Doctor, that he needs him to have Alison call him. Tells him to tell her his sister is missing and it’s tied to whatever was happening on that military base. In short, he looks like a raving mad-man and after agreeing to give her the message, the Coffee Doctor gives Henry a coffee on the house because “He doesn’t look too good”.

***

After a brief stop at the office where, it seems, something big is happening because the phone lines were all dead and the Chief was in meetings with some higher ups from some other agencies, Henry heads to the Concord Public Library to do a little research and make the call to Naomi’s parents.

Can I just say that there is something about this whole book that makes it feel like I can’t quite place the setting. Sometimes it feels a little futuristic or like the “normal” rules of today don’t quite add up. Other times it feels like some sort of alternate past. Either way, I absolutely LOVED the fact that he went to the public library to find the phone numbers and make the calls.

If you take nothing else away from this book, understand that public libraries ROCK and you should go use yours today.

Ok, back to Henry!

He finds a few names in the phone book that may or may not be related, but after the first two turn out to be unrelated, the third picks up and is Naomi’s father William(Bill). When Henry tells him he’s a detective, Bill hangs up and refuses to pick up any further calls Henry tries to make.

This is one of the first big moments where we, as readers, are asked to take a HUGE leap of faith and “just roll with it”.

Basically, as Henry leaves the library and drives across town to the hospitcal(and coroners office) he explains how when Naomi’s father hung up on him like that before he even had a chance to say WHY he was calling, that somehow unlocked everything and it all became clear. He’s solved the case… but we won’t find out for 2 more chapters because A) he has to set his trap for the killer and B) there are a couple small loose ends to tie up first.

Henry uses a payphone to make a couple quick calls. First to Officer McConnell, telling her “off camera” what he needs her to do so he can set his trap. Second to the precinct to let the other detectives know he’s solved the case and whoever killed Peter Zell is the same person that killed Naomi Eddes. BOOM! Double case solved.

But Detective Culverson tells him he better not come back to the office today because something big is happening and no one knows what yet, so he should just stay home.

***

With time to kill, we are given a bit of minor story to tie up some loose ends. Henry is thinking about Naomi, how he regrets not telling her the full truth about his parents. Up until this point all we’ve heard is that Henry’s parents both died. It’s assumed something happened and they died together, maybe a car accident or something like that.

Instead, we are given a look into Henry’s story. His Mom was a receptionist at the police department, his Dad was a professor at a local college. His Mom was murdered by a thief in a TJ Maxx parking lot and a few months later his Dad, unable to cope with the loss of his wife, hung himself in his office at the college he taught at.

It’s interesting that Henry’s father committed suicide by hanging, and this whole story with Peter Zell began with another hanging victim. In fact the whole town is known as Hanger Town. I don’t know what this says about Henry or about the author for that matter. Maybe nothing, maybe just a clever little nod to the reader. But a hanging death is not quick or painless, it usually involves at least a little pain and suffering before you black out, and maybe the prevalence of hangings is hinting at something bigger about this place. I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about.

***

As Henry waits to hear from Dr. Fenton about some task he asked her to do for him as part of his trap he is setting, Henry gets a call from a very drunk and very despondent sounding Mr. Gompers.

He came through. He’s got the files Henry asked for. Gompers tells Henry about the last case that Peter Zell was working on, the death of a Bernard Talley. But he is sure to let Henry know that the price he paid for getting these files is that the whole office is being shut down, he and his wife will be screwed, it’s all over.

Henry feels bad now. You see, not only did he force Gompers to look into this and thus is the cause of Gompers losing everything, but the information he found about the insurance claims ended up being completely irrelevant to the case at large. Peter Zell and Naomi were not killed over anything to do with an insurance claim. But Henry can hear it in Mr. Gompers voice… he isn’t going to make it. He knows he will kill himself and that it’s his fault, but what could he do? He had to chase down the leads and try to solve this case.

Hanging up from the call with Mr. Gompers, Dr. Fenton calls Henry back. She doesn’t understand just HOW he knew, but he was right. Naomi’s blood contained morphine. She was using, just like Peter Zell had been.

Here we are asked to once again take that leap of faith. A leap in which we are to believe that his conversation with Bill Eddes, and his quick visit to Dr. Fenton after that, somehow just opened all the doors and he had solved the case.

I don’t want to get too lost in the weeds here, because there are A LOT of moving parts to this ending, and honestly, you should have read it yourself already anyways. So I’m going to really quickly summarize who-dunnit, how, and why. Seriously, go read the actual book for all the details!

Naomi was a recovering addict. When Peter Zell had taken his leap of faith and decided to dabble in the life of drug use, she was clean. When her co-worker decided to get clean, she saw what he was dealing with because she’d been through it herself, so she decided to help him out. She brought him meals and checked on him those few weeks he was detoxing, then every day he’d call her to check in. They were each other’s support system. But she’d been through hell already, had put her parents through so much that when her Dad got the call from Henry and he heard it was the police, he just hung up. He was done and had given up on her.

When Peter got clean, the news of the asteroid becoming a 100% certainty also slammed home and Naomi decided to say screw it. She started using again and because she had been helping Peter stay clean, she also knew where she could find the drugs she needed.

But her dealer was now dead and the person that was supplying the dealer was the same person that killed BOTH Peter and Naomi. Her dealer was J.T. Toussaint, Peter’s childhood friend. The man that the detectives had gunned down after he attacked Henry.

We’re given all of this information as Henry waits at the hospital, watching the killer stroll in. The only thing missing still is the motive. WHY did he do all of this.

But the trap is set.

Officer McConnell is with Dr. Fenton in the morgue, dressed up as a grieving widow whose husband just killed himself. Dr. Fenton called Erik Littlejohn, the hospital minister, in to help because with the body being so mangled from the shotgun blast that killed him, she thought it best to have a minister there with the grieving widow to ID the body.

Erik Littlejohn. Peter Zell’s brother in law, husband of Sophia that has seemed shady all along. Controlling his wife, telling her what to say.

When Erik says he’s happy to help this grieving widow, Dr. Fenton says she will take them to the body. When he asks where it is, he starts to crack. She tells him they have the body laid out in the old chapel down the hall. Erik cracks, blurts out how that isn’t possible because that door is locked. He has the only key.

The chapel that had been out of use for some time because so many people needed Erik’s services as a minister that he’d had to move his services to a larger room elsewhere in the hospital.

Henry steps from the shadows, gun drawn, and tells Erik they need him to open the door. The game is over and Erik knows he’s caught. And now we get the rest of the story.

When Peter was caught after stealing Sophia’s prescription pad and confronted, Peter agreed to stop and get clean. But Erik saw an opportunity. So he approached J.T. Toussaint and they formed a partnership. Erik had access to a hospital that was lacking security due to the asteroid chaos, and as such had access to all the drugs. So Erik and Toussaint each assumed 50/50 risk and reward.

But the Saturday evening before he was killed, Peter had decided to get high again. So he went back to his old friends place because he knew he had a stash of drugs still. When he got there he found Erik, his brother in law, and knew what was happening. Erik begged him not to tell Sophia, but he knew that he’d have to kill Peter or he was going to spill the beans.

He was right.

Peter tried. He called his sister twice, but she didn’t answer. He started writing her a note but couldn’t find the words. He was upset, which is why when he and Toussaint went to watch Distant Pale Glimmer that night, Peter said he’d walk home after they’d had a few beers. It was the opportunity Erik was waiting for. He knew they’d be at the show so he followed. When Toussaint left Peter that night, Erik picked him up and convinced him to go have a few more beers with him so they could talk.

There he drugged Peter, dragged him to that McDonalds and killed him, staging it as a hanging suicide.

But WHY?

As they escorted Erik to get the key to the chapel, they step out of the elevator and there is Erik’s son. The son starts freaking out that his Dad is in handcuffs, Erik tries to get free and struggles with Henry, knocking his gun loose in the process. His son picks up the gun and has Henry at gunpoint before being talked down and giving the gun back to Henry.

Now Henry had the why. Erik’s motivation was trying to set things up as best he could for his wife and son, but they wouldn’t understand that so they couldn’t know.

The locked chapel was stocked with everything from medical supplies and food, some drugs, and tons of guns and ammo. Erik was trying to go Breaking Bad and set his family up for the inevitable end of the world.

It’s a plausible story, a mostly satisfying end to this mystery. But now the very end of the book, pre-epilogue, leaves me scratching my head.

Henry brings Erik to the precinct to get him booked. There he finds out that the entire Concord police department has been taken over by the feds. They’ll still have patrol officers, but the detective and crime division has been eliminated. Henry is stunned left feeling like his only purpose in life, the thing he could focus on until the end of the world, has just been pulled out from under him.

He leaves Erik with the booking officer and he just kind of wanders off into the proverbial sunset.

***

Overall, I enjoyed this book. This ending though, had I stopped reading right here, would have left me feeling largely unsatisfied. It just seemed like it all just fizzled in a flurry of “here’s how it happened”, which works great in a show like Monk or Columbo… but didn’t click with me quite as well on the written page.

As I said earlier though, I can’t complain about it because I really don’t know how to go about writing something better or more satisfying. So by and large, it was enjoyable if not totally satisfying.

But, the book isn’t finished quite yet. Because this is the first in a trilogy, we have the epilogue to dig into. Now, it’s not real long, but there is a bit more insight, another answer or two, and plenty to wonder about in terms of where book two will take us.

***

Jumping ahead to April, a few weeks after our story started in March, Henry is riding his bicycle up to a place called ‘Open Vista Institute’ up in New Hampshire. There he meets Veronica Talley, wife of Bernard Talley. The last insurance claim that Peter Zell was looking into. With no detective work to do he figured he’d follow up and see just what this final case held that was so interesting to Peter Zell.

Veronica tells, then shows, Henry that they used the insurance money to essentially build a time capsule that they will launch into space before the asteroid hits. They had it almost complete and ran out of money, so her husband Bernard, told her to take a walk down by the beach and when she got back he’d be dead and she could then use the insurance money to complete their time capsule and get it launched.

It’s a real interesting twist for the characters in this book which, up until now have been either work-a-holics in an effort to avoid dealing with the impending disaster or completely headed off the rails into the worlds of drugs and murder because they can’t cope with it anymore. But here we have Bernard and Veronica who have seemingly accepted it all, and realized that they want to do something to help preserve a small part of all that will be lost when the asteroid hits. Veronica has a really nice quote about it here that I think really gives a hopeful look at humanity.

She smiles, the first time she has done so in my presence. “Until humanity recovers sufficiently to retrieve it.”

She then asks Henry if he would like to add anything to the time capsule, like his “friend” Peter Zell had. Surprised Henry asks what he added and finds that Peter has added a small micro cassette. She had no idea what was on it and Henry thinks about taking it and trying to find a way to listen, but ultimately decides that Peter can keep his secret and puts the cassette back in the capsule.

But we get one final little mystery solved as Henry leaves Veronica. She tells him to be careful on the steps, they get slippery this time of year and Peter had slipped and fallen pretty hard when he was there to visit.

Peter WAS telling the truth. He wasn’t beat up. He fell down the stairs and bruised up his face.

No stone unturned, no loose strings left dangling… except for Nico. Last we heard from her she had vanished but told Henry she’d be back for him.

As he returns home from his long bike ride to Veronica’s, Nico is there waiting for him outside. She tells Henry that she’s part of an organization looking to expose the government… those same people that believed in the moon bases. She set up Derek, it’s why she married him initially even, because they needed more info and he was an easy person to trick. She’s cold hearted and Henry realizes she doesn’t seem at all like the sister he knew growing up. She’s something different.

He also knows that when she leaves this time, she’s gone. She tries to get Henry to listen, tries to get him to come with, but he doesn’t care. She tells him they found what they were looking for, doesn’t he want to know what it is? He says no but she tells him anyways. What they found… was Hope.

***

And there you have it. The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. What did you think of it? It was a very up and down experience for me and I still think that Part Three(and maybe the early parts of Part Four) were my favorite sections of this book.

I’m left feeling a bit odd about it though since, if the detectives are out of a job then all that is left for Henry Palace is waiting for the world to end. I’m sure he’ll be dragged into more of this secret organization with his sister in some fashion, but I’m kind of curious just where this story will swerve to in the next 2 books. I just don’t know if I’m curious ENOUGH to want to read them, at least not right away.

This whole first book focused so much on Henry and his detective work. It’s his passion. With that gone and the case of Peter Zell that drove this entire first book being solved, what’s left? It’s either the worlds longest, most detailed setup/intro to a larger universe OR the next two books will find us on some completely different and new adventure that just happens to be set between April and October when the asteroid hits.

Who knows, maybe Henry joins a secret task force and goes all “Armageddon” on things and like Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, finds himself on the asteroid itself in an effort to destroy it and save the world.

I’d love to hear your thoughts however and if you want to hear more about my thoughts on this story, be sure to listen to the Story Club episode we had for this very book! We have a great conversation between a handful of listeners(and readers) like YOU because we read The Last Policeman as our latest story in our Story Club in the official AIC Stories discord!

I’m not sure what book will be next in the Spines and Bindings series, but I have a few ideas to choose from! I hope you are enjoying the series and really do appreciate you taking time to explore this story with me!

But now, as they say… it’s…

The End.

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