The post-asteroid-announcement world sure has changed since we last saw Detective Henry Palace in The Last Policeman, the first book in Ben H. Winters' apocalyptic existential detective mystery series. He's no longer employed by the Concorde Police Department (though he hasn't given up on detecting, either). The populace has grown more savage; animal-like. Survival has become the name of the game, though with an asteroid hurtling toward earth and ready to make contact in 77 days, there is little hope for anyone withstanding its inevitable landing. Palace's former lover is still dead, his last official case as a Concorde detective nearly forgotten by everyone but himself, and he's still holing up in a ramshackle unfurnished house with his adopted dog, Houdini.
His newest case, taken on gratis in order to help, of all people, the person who used to babysit him and his sister, Nico, when they were kids, involves a missing husband, a strange anti-government conspiracy group, and an anticipated breakdown of society. Familiar characters make reappearances and are along for the ride, some making more significant contributions than others, but all of whom provide a surreal feeling of comfort by proving that Palace hasn't become the isolationist that he considers himself.
Though there wasn't much that needed improving in the series' first book, Countdown City still manages to be a far better read and far more captivating story. Perhaps it's because, by now, the end of days looming over everyone's heads is very established. The dismantling of humankind continues, as it was already well underway, only now this dismantling has achieved a disturbing yet morbidly realistic rapidity. Much like the most basic tenet of mystery-noir, the ground-level crime that Detective Palace is investigating leads him to a path that opens up his eyes to something far more shocking that's occurring, only this time the two events are connected only by a single character, as opposed to an all-encompassing conspiracy under which Palace's crime unfolded, and by which it was directly or inadvertently inspired. What that all means, essentially, is author Ben H. Winters is having fun playing around with genre expectations.
I love the subtle changes in this world from the first book to this one. I love that law enforcement positions went from being the most rewarded with that old outdated concept called money to the world of Countdown City, in which money has become irrelevant, and essential law enforcement officers are instead paid with rations: bottled water, non-perishable foods. (And god love you if you can find some coffee.) I love that rioting has become so common place so close to the end that our lead character has the ability to turn away from such sights occurring before him on the street with a level of nonchalant indifference that it should be repulsive, only it's somehow instead relieving.
The ending of Countdown City promises a rather intimate and personal final case for Detective Palace to solve before Maia comes to end everything, which will unfold in the series' final book. The Last Policeman trilogy concludes with World of Trouble (review coming soon).