Thursday, July 25, 2013

an apocalypse is not a tea party: The Last Policeman and *Countdown City, by Ben Winters

"You're like a monster, dude...From a monster movie. The man who would not fucking quit."
---Countdown City

My mega apologies to author Ben Winters for waiting so  long to get to these books. I felt so guilty that even though the author sent me an ecopy of Countdown City,  I paid for a real-book copy to ease my conscience.  They have a unique premise -- a huge asteroid is about to fall out of the sky and life as we know it has changed for the worse, and a policeman steadfastly remains to do his duty, on and off the job.    As the time gets closer, civilization starts to slide toward chaos.  With the news of impending doom, a lot of people, including much of the police department in Concord, NH where this book is set,  have gone bucket list -- meaning that now that they know when it's all going to end, they'll spend their last days doing things they've always dreamed of  doing before they died.    Someone's got to care -- and that someone is Hank Palace, a relative newbie to the police force who has been promoted to detective, a move that ordinarily wouldn't have been possible in that short of a time.  Hank, nice guy that he is, has become "the last policeman."  In both books, the author asks his readers to consider "what it means to be civilized when civilization is collapsing all around you," a key point in trying to understand the main character of this series.

 In The Last Policeman, the first in a three-part series, the number of suicides around the world has skyrocketed since the upcoming asteroid crash was confirmed. In Concord,  many of them are by hanging.  So when a guy has been found dead with a belt

Quirk Books, 2012
316 pp

paper (my copy from the author -- thank you!)

around his neck in the men's room of a McDonald's, it seems like it's just another "hanger," but Hank doesn't think so. He thinks it's murder and wants to do a full investigation, even though his colleagues think he's wasting his time.  He plows ahead, but the resources formerly available to him as a detective are limited because of the impending doom, so he'll have to rely mainly on good old-fashioned detective work.  He's also got a sister to deal with, who comes to him because her husband has gone missing.   The question here is what spurs him on when the apocalypse is just around the corner -- what is it about this guy that compels him to do what he does? And how the heck does he stay so good when the rest of the world's starting to come unglued?

The investigation in this book is not so different than in any crime novel -- it's what's going on around the police work that makes for the best reading.  While global society is starting to unravel at its edges, in Concord, it's getting harder to find gas, cell phone signals and internet connections, but people are really clever.  They're also pretty afraid of getting arrested --  with new federal government laws in place that put people away for even minor offenses, no one wants to live out their last days in a jail cell. On top of that, inflation is hitting hard and businesses are closing left and right, sometimes to give employees more time with their families before the end.  For the people who still have jobs, keeping them is a financial must in preparing for the future.  Even the current entertainment defines the times: the ongoing top-rated show, Distant Glimmers, as Hank relates, adds a subtext filled with hope for survival.   And, as you might have guessed, conspiracy theories are rampant and organizations have sprung up,  filled with people who believe there's still hope if they act -- Hank's sister Nico among them.

Considering it's the first novel in a series, it's pretty darn good.  I like Hank, but I spent a lot of time wondering  how he keeps it all together while things are starting to fall apart. He's overly nice, an all-around good guy, less cynical than I'd expect, but whatever. The supporting characters are not as well developed as they probably could be, but that's pretty normal for a first-in-series novel.   I also found the predoom setting to be a really interesting backdrop for a police novel, but the book was overall less "apocalyptic noir" in tone than I'd hoped it was going to be.  The one thing I really didn't like (but understand the logic behind)  was the whole Nico plot --  where she gets involved in some "nonsense" regarding secretly-constructed bases on the dark side of the moon -- that gives these parts of the book more political conspiracy thriller-weighted moments that to me seemed unnecessary. 

If you are a fan of crossover novels, you'll have a sporting good time with this one, so I'd say give it a try, and definitely read this one before the second novel, Countdown City, which picks up with the asteroid

Quirk Books, 2013
316 pp


just 77 days away from its collision with our planet. As people try to prepare for the inevitable, the government has put Hank out of a job, as it has federalized the Concord Police Force. Investigative units are out -- "relatively unnecessary, given the current environment." The patrol units are amped up, but now everyone reports to the Justice Department. Hank takes early retirement after being on the job only a short time, but his unemployed status doesn't curb his desire to help others.  Countdown City is much more action packed than its predecessor, and I have a feeling that this volume might be the lynchpin between the first and the last novel in this series, getting everyone in place for what's to come.  

The situation is rapidly becoming hopeless as the world waits for the big crash.  The scientists have predicted that the asteroid will hit Indonesia or at least somewhere close, and American shores have been flooded with boats filled with people trying to escape "boomsday."  Electricity in Hank's neck of the woods is no more; people are getting "aftermath ready," hoarding food and water and "whole new forms of abrupt departure, new species of madness" are popping up everywhere. Scam artists are taking what money people have left.  Hank's sister is still involved in an "anti-asteroid conspiracy" group, one of several which have popped up, taking their theories very seriously.  In the midst of all of the craziness, Hank's childhood babysitter Martha is missing her husband, and calls on Hank for help.  Nice guy that he is, of course he can't turn her down, and despite the fact that his usual resources no longer exist, he forges ahead. 


 There are two main avenues being explored here -- first, the search for Martha's husband, which leads Hank down other investigative avenues, and the author's exploration of people's responses to downright dire  circumstances.  On one side, the litany of  people and their uncivilized behavior begins to get depressing, although it's fit into Hank's investigation well so that there's no in your faceness about it.  It's so realistic that after I finished this book one of my first thoughts was about all these weirdo people in real life who think a coming apocalypse could be a good thing -- and how they don't have a clue.  Both avenues tie very neatly together in this novel, to produce a heck of a setup for the final volume.  Some events were a little too neat, too pat, too deus ex machina,  though, sadly I can't say what those are so as not to spoil the show. So, yes, I recommend both novels -- especially to people of a dystopian bent where crime solving  is a big factor in the story.  These books are really out of the box -- a good thing.

so...when's volume three coming? I have to know what happens now -- you left me hanging!


  1. Nice review. I had shied from reading these, but you've convinced me otherwise.


    1. Yeah, I was surprised too! You can have my copies, if you'd like them -- I'm going to give them away anyway.

  2. This series has crossed my radar a few times but your review may make me put it on my TBR list. The premise is great!

    1. It's fun. The main character has definite shades of Marlowe (Phillip, not Christopher), which may have been the initial attraction. Thank you, Tom!


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