World of Trouble: The Last Policeman Barrels Towards its End

Fifth Gear

The Last Policeman series by Ben H. Winters has garnered an Edgar Award (2012, The Last Policeman) and a Philip K. Dick Award (2013, Countdown City), delightful recognition in a literary world where awards often go to novels that are epic, meticulously crafted, relevant, or even stupefying, but not always fun. This month, the final installment in the series, World of Trouble, takes down the fun about a hundred notches, but concludes the story unforgettably.

The Last Policeman opens in March. Detective Hank Palace is a cop’s cop, one of those rare men who rises each morning knowing exactly why he’s here. That virtue, however, is about to become irrelevant. Maia, a massive asteroid formerly known as 2011GV(sub 1), is predicted to collide with Earth in October, with 100% certainty according to the news media. Maia will probably not strike Hank’s home of Concord, New Hampshire dead-on, but her impact is predicted to eradicate life on Earth as we know it.

Hank, like others around him, takes in this news with grave dismay as he is faced with yet another suicide investigation. But when he sees signs that foul play might have taken the life of Peter Zell, Hank decides that he, for one, still knows his purpose, and intends to live it to the end. Instead of rubber-stamping Zell’s file, he begins to ask questions. The answers to those questions, told over the course of a lively and tense story peppered with wry humor, begin to reveal the rapid breakdown of human civilization in the growing shadow of Maia. What are the limits of human morality, and for what reasons will people cross them?

In the background of the murder investigation, we learn that Hank has a sister, Nico. The two are bound by a tragic family history, driven apart by disparate natures. Nico has stepped to the fringes, along with a radical group that believes the Maia story is part of a government conspiracy. The asteroid’s path has been mischaracterized, or can be deflected. Deliberate and sensible Hank rejects Nico’s movement–but what if they’re right?

As Countdown City opens, the suicide trend that made it easy to overlook Peter Zell’s death has not abated, and Hank is faced with another disappearance. Was Brett Cavatone, ex-cop and devoted husband to Martha, a victim of foul play, or has he simply “gone bucket-list,” along with the millions of others who have run away to formerly forbidden loves, pleasures, missions, and false promises of salvation?

It is now July. Maia’s impact is less than 3 months away. Greater questions arise. What are the limits of human fidelity, faith, and relationships, as civilization recedes into a sort of feudal mistrust? The formerly sophisticated global marketplace collapses into local bartering circles. The network of human labor abandons its posts on the power and technology grids. Small, tight communities war with each other for water, food, and security. Nico’s faction, for instance, fashions itself as a scouting arm for the Free Republic, a group of students that occupy the former University of New Hampshire campus. An escape community called “The World of Tomorrow” advertises its luxury mountain stronghold to frightened people of means.

In World of Trouble, things get a lot simpler and a lot worse very quickly. Nico has disappeared, and Maia’s impact is just over a month away. Humankind in the United States has withdrawn from itself. People are holed up with loved ones and whatever provisions they’ve been able to hoard; those without loved ones who are lucky enough to find companions to make do; and some are more alone than they’ve ever been. Hank’s final mission is to reunite with his sister, and his situation seems hopeless. His only lead takes him to an abandoned firehouse in Ohio, and his only witness is a comatose young woman who’s been brutally assaulted and left for dead.

“I cannot just let her be gone,” he says. “I can’t abide the idea of our final bitter exchange remaining the last conversation to take place between her and me, the last two members of our family that will ever exist… I need to find her so badly that it is like a low rolling heat in my stomach, like the fire in the belly of a furnace, and if I don’t find her–if I don’t manage to see her, hug her, apologize to her for letting her go–then it will leap up and consume me.”

If Book 1 questioned human moral limitations and Book 2, human faithfulness, Book 3 turns to examine what remains to those of us who can face mortality with both morals and loyalties intact. The “bucket list” era is over. Some factions gang up to possess as much as possible and hide it away, digging in for survival against all odds. Some hide from the survivalists. And some simply go on as before, denying that Maia is anything but a light in the sky. A very few are prepared to face Maia with human dignity intact.

World of Trouble is really about people like Billy and Sandy, who harbor Hank at one point during his quest. Billy and Sandy are old high school sweethearts who parted to pursue other possibilities, until Maia threatened years later. They found each other then, and together they stayed, as simple as that. At five days until impact, Billy and Sandy have parked their RV next to a fast food restaurant. They have enough power for a string of lanterns and nonstop vintage rock and roll. They have a lot of beer. And they have by luck acquired a flock of sixteen chickens, which they slaughter and fry at eight-hour intervals, “a goddamn gift from the gods.”

“Three chickens a day times five days equals fifteen chickens,” Sandy says.

“Plus a bonus chicken,” puts in Billy.

“Oh yeah, right, bonus chicken,” Sandy says, squeezing his arm.

What more is there to life, if you know you’ll eat and drink your favorite meal until the moment you die in your true love’s arms, and not only that, but you have a bonus chicken, too?

Winters writes solid, entertaining crime fiction, infused with his own quirky perspective on the world. Hank Palace is a decent guy, a maddeningly dogged detective, the kind of hero that takes the case of a little boy’s missing toy sword as seriously as the case of a woman’s husband gone bucket-list. He’s also human enough to fall in love, once or twice, and to maintain a fierce devotion to his only sister, despite the abysmal differences that drive them apart. And he’s unable to do less than his best.

But if you think it takes nothing more than one decent guy to save the world–


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