A cop to the end of the world – and after?

Is “The Last Policeman” a mystery novel or science fiction?

I guess it’s a bit of both, although I’ve seen it classified as science fiction most often.

But Ben H. Winters’ book – the first of a trilogy – defies an “either or” definition.

The book’s protagonist, Hank Palace, is a newly promoted police detective in a New England city that’s slowly falling apart, not unlike much of society. That’s because the world is coming to an end.

A few months before, scientists spotted a previously unnoticed asteroid a few million miles out. As the asteroid – a few kilometers wide – draws closer to Earth, it goes from a scientific curiosity to one of those “look what almost happened” news stories to a harbinger of the end: As the novel tells us in judicious flashbacks and fleeting memories, scientists determine that the asteroid, Maia, is on a collision course with earth.

As society’s conventions begin to fall by the wayside – turns out restaurant chains and cell phone companies are among the first to say “the hell with it” when the end of the world is a few months away – police like Palace have their hands full with suicides, people who skip right past “bucket list” and “party like it’s 1999” and go right to death.

As the story opens, Palace is investigating an incident in which a man apparently hanged himself in the bathroom of a McDonald’s – or, a pirate McDonald’s that sprang up after the company officially folded its golden arches.

Palace believes this latest dead body isn’t the result of a suicide and begins – despite the scoffing of a handful of other detectives – investigating the death.

Not surprisingly, for the first of three planned books, there are some plot elements left open at the end of “The Last Policeman.” While Palace solves the murder of the man in the bathroom, other, larger mysteries are left unresolved. Some of them include nearly-below-the-radar doubts about Maia and whether it will actually collide with Earth, no less end civilization.

Winters brings a nice sense of doom, leavened with some humor, to his story. I’m curious as to where he’s going in the second and third books and whether I should get my hopes up about the fate of the planet.

 

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