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