The Last Policeman: solving a murder before an asteroid wipes out life on Earth

Last year I read Bedbugs, Ben Winters' psychological thriller/horror novel about a woman who was certain that her apartment was filled with bedbugs, while her husband was telling her that she was imagining them. It reminded me of Rosemary's Baby, one of my favorite movies.

The Last Policeman is Ben Winters' third novel (he also wrote Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters , which I have not read), and I enjoyed it even more than Bedbugs. It's a noir-ish whodunit that opens with New Hampshire police detective Hank Palace (who narrates the story) standing inside a McDonald's restroom, examining the body of a dead man. All of the evidence points to suicide, but Palace has a hunch the man was murdered and that the murderer had set the corpse up in the restroom to make it look like he'd hung himself. Palace wants to pursue the murder angle, But the other police officers and the assistant district attorney on the scene don't seem to care one way or the other what happened. As I read this part, I wondered why no one but Palace was interested in learning the truth.

A few pages later I learned that the world of The Last Policeman was very different than our world. Palace says:

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 profits... 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-Eleven’s, either, and no more real Dunkin’ Donuts.

What's going on? It won't spoil the story when I tell you, because it's revealed on page 22: "six months and eleven days from today... a 6.5-kilometer-diameter ball of carbon and silicates will collide with Earth." That explains why most people in the police department don't care whether or not the dead man was murdered. The world is about to end.

It’s creepy fun to read Winters' description of a pre-apocalyptic society that knows it's doomed. In a Q&A with Winters that’s on the publisher's website, Winters said:

What I was most fascinated by was everything I learned about economic behavior in the face of uncertainty. I talked a lot with economists about, for example, what the Federal Reserve would do to encourage savings and keep the economy in motion if there was, say, a one-in-one-hundred chance of apocalypse. So I learned about megaton blasts and global temperature drop, but also about inflationary pressure and the interest rate and the stock market.

(For another terrific novel that envisions how society would change as a result of introducing one big change, read The Postmortal, by Drew Magary)

While a lot of people in the police department and town government have stopped working, Palace and a very few others feel morally obligated to solve the murder. But someone is determined to keep them from finding out the truth. Why? You’ll find out at the end. In addition, Palace's sister is involved with a bizarre conspiracy, which does not get resolved by the end of the book. Why not? Because The Last Policeman is only the first book in a trilogy. I'm eager to read the other books, and expect that they’ll keep me as enthralled as the first one did.

Of course, I had to go online and read about potentially hazardous asteroids. The number one contender is Apophis, which, according to Wikipedia "caused a brief period of concern in December 2004 because initial observations indicated a small probability (up to 2.7%) that it would strike the Earth in 2029." The odds have dropped considerably since then.

The Last Policeman


  1. Robert Charles Wilson does pre-apocalyptic but doomed society quite well in Spin. And that’s just part of the story.

  2. I have read Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and I enjoyed it for what it was. Some who have read both say that it compares favorably to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, with more original content, but I’m pretty much zombied out and have not yet read P&P&Z. I felt that S&S&SM had the right touch of parody and and a nice dose of Verne and/or Wells.

    I look forward to reading The Last Policeman.

  3. So cool!  I heard about this book a few months ago when some friends of mine made the trailer for the book.

  4. This reminds me of a short story, that I read years ago, about a guy (in LA?) who one night notices that the moon has suddenly become MUCH brighter. While everyone else is standing around going “derp, look at the moon!” he eventually deduces that the sun has gone nova, and that in about 12 hours, when the earth spins and the supersonic shockwave of superheated boiled seawater arrives, the world is going to get really awful. He keeps this secret to himself and spends the night rushing about getting canned food, finding a place to hunker down that’s high enough to survive the coming tsunami and strong enough to survive the coming shockwave, and fetching his girlfriend(?) and dog(?)

    One detail I particularly remember from the story is the narrator feeling like a fraud as he pays for his shopping via eftpos(?). He knows he has ample credit to cover the purchase, but he also knows that the shopkeeper is never ever going to receive the money.

    Of course, I can’t remember either the author or the name of the story :( I do remember it was good. Does anybody recall it?

    1. Actually not nova, as that doesn’t happen here and would wipe out Earth completely, I think, but a large solar flare, which may or may not dwindle befor the sun rises.

      1. Yes, thank-you.I knew of course it was not a nova, but I had a brain cramp, couldn’t remember. I was going to look it up too -have the book somewhere in some form. From what I can guess about you based on your posts – I am not surprised you knew this immediately ;)

    1. Was goingto mention this. My favourite Don McKellar film, and I think his first. Also stars Dvid Cronenburg, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley

  5. It’s a really potent concept: the degree to which humans waste their (and other humans’) time on things that only humans care about in a very short timespan, while there are much bigger things going on in a much bigger universe.

    Anyone else remember that Gary Larson cartoon, when the world is ending, and there are two dogs totally fixated on each other?

  6. Philosophers think about this kind of scenario, and also about the living indefinitely scenario, from time to time. Time is the key concept—as it stands now time plays such an integral role in many of our values. It’s not clear with this kind of radical change that we would even recognize the value systems that would develop. In the “humanity ending” instance, we lose all sense of participating in traditions larger than ourselves. And in the “living indefinitely” scenario, we might not even recognize those beings as fully human anymore; without loss and fear of death and death as a motivator to behavior and all the rest…what would we eventually even care about? I don’t really think we’d stop all desiring, but some thinkers do.

  7. the idea of a pre-apocalyptic society that knows it’s doomed puts me in the mind of Ron Currie Jr.’s “God Is Dead,” a novel I greatly enjoyed.  The crisis in this case is spiritual, and happens *after* god is actually found in physical form deceased here on earth, but it does entail a societal collapse, and then life goes on to an uncertain fate.  The ways we change and the ways that we stay the same in the face of certain nihilism would seem to be a shared theme in these books.  The scenario of pirate McDonalds and police indifferent about a murder could easily be a chapter from Currie Jr.’s book.  I never hear anything about GID, which is annoying because it felt like a watershed type of book to me.  meh, my two cents.

    1. “Towing Jehovah”, “Blameless in Abaddon”, and “City of Truth” among others by James Morrow are along similar lines, with loads of dark humor.  Might want to throw those on the reading list as well.

  8. Martin Amis’s short story ‘The Janitor on Mars’ is an interesting take on this premise. An alien computer that’s been placed on Mars suddenly starts transmitting signals, so a delegation of earths VIPs goes out to greet our ‘first contact’. But it turns out that the computer is merely a janitorial presence, placed there to oversee the earth’s upcoming destruction by approaching asteroid, and he has only been activated after that destruction has become inevitable. He tells the delegation of the ascending ranks of intelligences far greater than ours that, he explains, engage in unimaginably destructive wars across the universe, one of which now features the earth as collateral damage. Amis uses the premise to a) illustrate how truly tiny and insignificant the earth is in cosmic terms, and b) to suggest that knowing – really knowing – this, and that we’re all going to die, would remove all of the constraints that keep our basest instincts in check. It’s grim but, as you’d expect, bleakly funny.

  9. Reminds me somewhat of Ben Elton’s most fantastic book, “The First Casualty”, in which a London policeman is sent to the trenches in France during World War I to investigate a murder – all whilst there is wholesale slaughter of those around him happening all the time without anyone batting an eyelid.

  10. I went through this last night in one sitting; it was an excellent read. Can’t wait for the next installments in the trilogy to arrive.

    I was reminded of how much Raymond Chandler seemed to enjoy bashing around poor Philip Marlowe; Winters was rather cruel to our unfortunate, battered protagonist.

  11. Sounds like a companion to Melancholia by Lars von Trier (Wikipedia:The narrative revolves around two sisters during and shortly after one’s wedding, while Earth is about to collide with an approaching rouge planet.)

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