Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Recent read: The Last Policeman

Here's one thing a nine hour drive is good for: listening to audiobooks.

My latest choice was a good one, too. Not to serious, but a great take on the detective novel.

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Detective stories are not usually my thing. I like them; I mean, sure. I was into The Big Sleep when I had to read it in college. And I had my round of addiction to cat mysteries from about age 11 to 14. But it's been a while since I indulged (it does feel like indulging, doesn't it?) in a good commercial mystery novel. What I don't always like about these kind of stories anymore is that they sometimes feel too rote, like I've already read them before I've ever cracked the cover. Nancy Drew and Scooby Doo were cool, but each always came with predictable structure, characters, and resolution. Ben Winters' The Last Policeman, though, is a new take on the crime-solving detective novel.

The basic premise of the book is simple: an asteroid, kilometers wide, is headed toward Earth. It's going to make impact within months. And Detective Hank Palace is solving a murder while the world prepares for a cataclysmic event. It's pre-apocalyptic.

This is the kind of story I read, and then I promptly kick myself for not thinking of a premise like that first. The constant, hovering threat of the asteroid's certain impact is enough to change the world of the novel just enough to make everything feel different. It's modern day, but it's modern day with enough of a twist that people don't act like we would expect them to. Doctors and law enforcement officers have abandoned their jobs to go pursue their dreams in what they think might be their final days. Routine investigation is incredibly difficult. Much of the infrastructure of modern living has started to fall apart. Givens like cell phone or internet coverage just aren't givens anymore. That constant, external pressure from the threatening asteroid also allows Winters to show his characters' true colors quite nicely.

In Hank Palace's world, suicides are no longer routinely investigated. There are just too many. But he finds a man hanging in a McDonald's bathroom and something doesn't seem right; he decides he has to investigate, and that staging a suicide in a dying world is the perfect cover for murder.

Yes, there were parts of this book that were predictable, but I enjoyed it more than I expected to. It held my attention all the way though and it felt well-paced. The tropes I've come to expect in this type of book were there, but under this unique premise they seemed to have a little more life. The Last Policeman is the first of a trilogy, and I think I'll enjoy reading the next two to see where they go.

My recommendation: Yes! Read this. It'd make a great vacation read.

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