If you were a homicide detective who got the call on a dead body, which, when investigated, had all the makings of a suicide and very little of a murder, would you investigate it, anyway? Would you ignore all the obvious makings of someone having taken their life and investigate it as if the deceased were murdered?
And, if the world was doomed to end courtesy of Maia, the asteroid, which was scheduled to hit the planet in a matter of months, would you still investigate?
That's the big question at work in Ben H. Winter's The Last Policeman, the first in a trilogy involving Detective Henry Palace, a detective with the Concorde, NH, police department.
Falling within the genres of soft science fiction and mystery, though described as an "existential detective novel" by its author, The Last Policeman is an entertaining and enigmatic police procedural, and while these are always fun, it has the added effect of playing out against the apocalypse, which forces several of our characters to confront the big question: why bother? If the world is doomed to end in six months, why bother going to work, eating healthy, walking the dog, solving that murder? What's it all going to mean in the long-run?
The character of Detective Henry Palace easily fits the mold of what has become the typical investigator. He's hard-boiled, haunted by his past, cynical (though not to the point of indifference), and mostly, just trying to do his job that he's being paid to do: a man has apparently taken his life (not an uncommon occurrence in the months leading up to complete devastation), and Detective Palace dutifully investigates the scene. The "victim," Peter Zell, is found in the bathroom stall of a local McDonald's, his belt tied around his neck, strangled to death. Everyone around Palace seems ready to write it off as a suicide and move onto the next thing, but the scene bothers Palace too much - to the extent that he's willing to become a pain in the ass to his superiors and dismissive of the rules and conduct of a New Hampshire police officer. As is demanded by the mystery/noir genre, nothing is what it seems, and Detective Palace peels back layer by layer of what everyone has labeled a standard suicide, revealing something far more surprising beneath.
The Last Policeman is thrilling, funny (in that sardonic kind of way), introspective, certainly existential, and haunting. The reader will root for Detective Palace from the start, because even though his task to investigate a suicide as a murder seems like a fool's errand in the face of Maia the asteroid and humanity's growing apathy, it's more comforting to believe that there is someone out there who cares enough to embark on such a quest on which most people have already given up. (Plus he's a kind of a generous tipper, throwing down thousands of dollars for his $15 breakfast.)
The Last Policeman is followed by Countdown City, and the final part, World of Touble, is a brand new release from the author; all three are available from Quirk Books (publisher of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.)