Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book review: The Last Policeman Trilogy

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ The Last Policeman (2013)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Countdown City (2013)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ World of Trouble (2014)

Ben H. Winters

The last time I read a trilogy was probably in the 1980s—Dune or Foundation or something. I don’t have the attention span for them anymore, and there are so many great novels waiting to be read that I rarely stick with any author for more than one book, let alone three.
      For this trilogy, I made an exception.
      Ben Winters has come up with a great combination here: a mash-up of two disparate genres, the murder mystery and the apocalypse novel. And he’s such a gifted writer that he moves easily through quick pacing and plot twists, making for a thrilling, thought-provoking read from the beginning to the end of the trilogy.
      In all three novels, cop Henry Palace is doing his gumshoe best to fight crime in his hometown of Concord, New Hampshire (another unlikely device—thrillers set in New Hampshire?) and, later, the Midwest. But there’s a greater threat lurking: A gigantic asteroid that’s about to plow into the Earth and wipe out life as we know it. In the first novel, the end of the world is a few months away, the asteroid a mere dot in a high-powered telescope. When the second and third books open, it’s down to weeks, then days. As the trilogy progresses, society falls apart as people all over the world prepare for the end of their lives. But there’s Henry, still plunking away at his job, trying to keep a little law and order in his corner of the chaos. Again and again, this brings up a question: Why would anyone care about an ordinary thing like their job when everything around them is about to go up in a fiery wreck?
      The meat of these novels is how differently people answer that very question. Some “go bucket”—chuck their responsibilities and binge on drugs, traveling, sex, whatever they wanted to do their whole lives but denied themselves or never had time for. Others stockpile ammunition and fearfully ride out the disaster in a dark bunker. Others, like Henry Palace, try to hold together the seams of human civilization for as long as possible. And it’s that quixotic dream that makes Henry such a likeable hero: To him, order still matters. People still matter. He’s the kind of companion—taciturn, practical, but ultimately kind—that you’d want by your side when the big one hits.
     I highly recommend starting with the first novel to get grounded in the background and to experience the gradual disintegration of human culture, but each novel stands well on its own as a distinct story.
      Winters, who called The Last Policeman “an existential detective novel,” has made a career of driving square pegs into round holes with a literary hammer and making it work spectacularly well. (His Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters was a bestseller in 2009.) I see on his website that he’ll do it again with his next novel, due in 2016: Underground Airlines, a crime drama set in an alternate present day where the Civil War never happened and slavery is still legal. According to Winters*, “[Underground Airlines] is about race and racism, it’s about grief, it’s about the horror of American slavery, and it’s about compromise. Well, I mean, I think that’s what this book is about. I’m not done.”
      I, for one, will have that baby on pre-order. I can’t wait to see what Winters does with it.

*Have a look at Edwin Battistella’s site, Literary Ashland, for a great interview with Winters from early this year.

Monday, October 6, 2014

A few favorite place names in that big wild stretch
between I-5 and the Oregon Coast

Onion Mountain

Rowdy Creek

Mountain Man RV Park

Bruce’s Bones Creek

Wonder Stump Road

Suicide Creek

Hard Cash Lane

Our Road