The specter of death writ large looms over Ben Winters’s science fiction–mystery hybrid ‘The Last Policeman’

March 26, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 26, 2019

Maryland native Ben H. Winters is a prolific author whose first two books, published in 2009 and 2010, were the literary mashups Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina. The author’s first wholly original novel, the horror story Bedbugs, appeared in 2011. Since then, Winters has completed a number of volumes for adults and young readers. His work for the youth set includes a horror anthology and a pair of mysteries. Over the years, Winters has also penned several theatrical productions meant for both adult and young audiences.

Most of Winters’s adult-oriented tales have science-fictional elements; many also borrow elements from the mystery genre. His 2012 book, The Last Policeman, straddled both literary categories in launching what’s come to be called the Last Policeman trilogy.

The core death investigation plays out against an unusual background: The planet is six months away from a catastrophic collision with a massive asteroid. A number of tales about apocalyptic encounters between Earth and heavenly bodies with menacing trajectories focus on the effort to avert potential tragedy or to preserve segments of the population. The 1998 movie Deep Impact, by way of example, features both elements, with the U.S. government converting a set of Missouri caves into a shelter for a million survivors while a space mission attempts to alter the asteroid’s course.

Winters, however, is more interested in exploring how average people might attempt to cope with impending disaster. Some reactions are obvious: Some people commit suicide; others go “Bucket List”; still others indulge their lust for drugs or sex.

For most of the rest of the population, life isn’t quite as dramatic — even if maintaining a facade of normalcy requires an increasing effort with each passing hour. Winters’s narrator provides some exposition in an early scene in which he supervises a small police team that’s responded to a supposed suicide:

I follow Michelson’s gaze to the counter and the red-faced proprietor of the McDonald’s, who stares back at us, his unyielding gaze made mildly ridiculous by the bright yellow shirt and ketchup-colored vest. Every minute of police presence is a minute of lost profit, and you can just tell the guy would be over here with a finger in my face if he wanted to risk an arrest on Title XVI. Next to the manager is a gangly adolescent boy, his thick mullet fringing a counterman’s visor, smirking back and forth between his disgruntled boss and the pair of policemen, unsure who’s more deserving of his contempt. 

“He’ll be fine,” I told Michelson. “If this were last year, the whole scene of crime would be shut down for six to twelve hours, and not just the men’s john, either.” 

Michelson shrugs. “New times.” 

I scowl and turn my back on the owner. Let him stew. It’s not even a real McDonald’s. There are no more real McDonald’s. The company folded in August of last year, ninety-four percent of its value having evaporated in three weeks of market panic, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of brightly colored empty storefronts. Many of these, like the one we’re now standing in, on Concord’s Main Street, have subsequently been transformed into pirate restaurants: owned and operated by enterprising locals like my new best friend over there, doing a bustling business in comfort food and no need to sweat the franchise fee. 

There are no more real 7-Elevens, either, and no more real Dunkin’ Donuts. There are still real Paneras, but the couple who owns the chain have undergone a meaningful spiritual experience and restaffed most of the restaurants with coreligionists, so it’s not worth going in there unless you want to hear the Good News. 

…… 

I give the crime-scene officers their marching orders: McConnell is to finish collecting statements, then go find and inform the victim’s family. Michelson is to stay here by the door, guarding the scene until someone from [the medical examiner’s] office arrives to collect the corpse. 

“You got it,” says McConnell, flipping closed her notebook. 

“Beats working,” says Michelson. 

“Come on, Ritchie,” I say. “A man is dead.” 

“Yeah, Stretch,” he says. “You said that already.” 

“Stretch” is Hank Palace, recently promoted to homicide detective in the municipal police force in New Hampshire’s sleepy capital city. (Concord’s 2017 population of 43,019 was marginally larger than the number of residents recorded in the 2010 census.) The man whose death nearly everyone believes to have been suicide is Peter Zell, a short, pudgy, introverted insurance actuary and investigator. But, as is often the case in this kind of story, some details about the case keep on nagging at Palace…

The detective’s dogged investigation takes him into the life of someone who, like him, was both a stickler for rules and a lifelong Concord resident. He meets Zell’s childhood buddy, a hulking construction worker named J.T. Toussaint who had recently renewed his friendship with the deceased man; Sophia Littlejohn, the dead man’s estranged sister; and Zell’s insurance-office colleagues. Among the latter group is Naomi Eddes, an enigmatic young bald woman. Like Zell, Palace forms a relationship with her that is both intense and ambivalent.

‘The Last Policeman’ (2012) by Ben H. Winters.

Along the way, Palace also tangles with Dr. Alice Fenton, New Hampshire’s exacting chief medical examiner; Denny Dotseth, a lackadaisical local assistant prosecutor who writes off Zell’s death as self-inflicted from the start; Alison Koechner, the detective’s high school sweetheart; Palace’s own wayward younger sister, Nico, whose reprobate new husband, Derek, has suddenly vanished; and a very upset, possibly deranged friend of Derek’s known to Palace only as Mustache Man. In addition, the narrator has a number of encounters both friendly and fraught with his colleagues on the police force, who are handling the approaching calamity with varying degrees of professionalism.

Winters starts with a straightforward premise — and, it must be said, a somewhat dull protagonist — and crafts an intriguing tale. Some of the story beats are familiar, such as an examination of one very likely suspect who turns out not to be guilty, and the protagonist’s crisis of faith. And one subplot, the book’s biggest misstep, verges into thoroughly clichéd territory.

But these are minor flaws in a fantastic novel. Ultimately, The Last Policeman delivers a satisfying and nuanced story that offers few easy comforts either to its characters or its readers.

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