The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters

I’ve mentioned in a previous review that the student body at my school votes on one common summer reading book. Throughout the year, titles are submitted to the English/Language Arts department, and by the end of the year, they’ve whittled the list down to between three and five choices. Over the past few years, the students have voted for some good books. This year, the winning title (out of five) was The Last Policeman.

In previous years, I submitted a ballot also. I voted with the majority three out of the previous four votes. The one year I didn’t, I voted for Every Day—which I finally recently read and thoroughly enjoyed—but the book that won turned out to be an enjoyable, though slightly slow, read. Because I had a senior homeroom this year and they wouldn’t be reading the summer reading book, we didn’t receive ballots. I didn’t know the five finalists until after the fact, but I probably would have voted for The Last Policeman based on the book summary.

A large asteroid is on a collision-course with Earth, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done to stop it. Humanity has reacted to this news in a variety of ways. Some people choose to kill themselves to avoid the disaster. Other people start checking items off their bucket lists. Others choose to combat their depression with illicit substances. Others loot, panic, hide, etc. And there are some who continue doing what they were doing. Detective Henry Palace falls into the latter category.

He’s young and hasn’t been a detective for long, having received the promotion because of others leaving the force. But he’s earnest, and he wants to do a good job. When a body is discovered dead from a hanging in a restaurant bathroom, it’s immediately assumed to be just another “hanger”—another person committing suicide. But Palace thinks that something doesn’t quite add up, so he starts investigating the case as if it were a murder.

The novel could be considered a murder mystery, but what distinguishes it from other such stories is the setting. The world-building in this book is quite well done. It’s an alternate contemporary setting, and the different reactions of the characters to their impending fates is intriguing and definitely one of the strengths of the book. The backstory of what has happened to society since the asteroid was discovered are never intrusive, and they flow nicely out of the plot situations.

The mystery aspects of the story kept me engaged through most of the story as details into victim Peter Zell’s life were revealed. The supporting cast of witnesses and suspects, however, all hid something from the investigation, and the repetition of this behavior irritated me somewhat. It’s too common a thing in police procedurals—in books, television, and movies—for such characters to withhold evidence. Here it’s used in a way to withhold plot and extend the length of the story such that it wasn’t as interesting in the final pages as it was in the beginning.

There’s also a subplot concerning Palace’s sister and brother-in-law that isn’t resolved and doesn’t connect to the main murder-case narrative. I know that this is the first part of a trilogy, and it seems their actions figure prominently in the next book, but those scenes didn’t work for me as part of the unified event of the first book.

I also have some issues with Palace as a narrator. At the start, I liked his earnestness and stubbornness insisting it’s a murder case and how he’s going to investigate it properly. But as the book progresses, he stops at nothing to solve the mystery even if it hurts people along the way. He’s new to the job, so are these rookie mistakes? Or is the book one long rumination on the differences in the fight-or-flee mentality? Or is it a commentary that no matter how honest we may strive to be, we’re all somewhat flawed? Or is he in his own downward spiral just like the incoming asteroid? I’m not really sure which it is or how to answer the question, and the revelation of the whodunit part of the story didn’t provide an answer either.

There’s an epilogue that nicely hints that the victim may be involved in something bigger, which may or may not be revealed in the rest of the trilogy, but I’m not sure if I’m invested enough to find out.

Though an intriguing premise and setting, the plot and characters were like asteroids whizzing by—flashy and impressive to look at, but failing to leave an impact in the end. THREE AND A HALF STARS

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The Last Policeman is available at Amazon.

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