In Ben H. Winters’ new mystery, “The Last Policeman,” a massive asteroid named Maia will hit Earth in six months. The human race is reacting badly to the lack of a future.
So who cares about a suicide in the restroom of the local McDonald’s in Concord, N.H.?
Detective Hank Palace cares. Palace has a tidy streak in him that keeps him working despite the inevitability of extinction, and something in this death doesn’t add up here.
“What I’m really dealing with here is the fact that all of us will die,” Winters says. “How would we behave under those circumstances — behave ethically, behave morally. What is the way to behave knowing that our days are limited?”
In the mystery, some have already killed themselves in mass immolations or walk off their jobs to fulfill their “before-I-die” bucket list or dreamed of escaping to non-existent moon colonies.
Unfortunately, our modern world doesn’t run by all by itself. Technology is breaking down. The cell phone grid is failing. Only the authorities have gasoline for their cars. Even the McDonald’s isn’t the familiar Golden Arches we know now.
“Many of these, like the one we’re now standing in, on Concord’s Main Street, have subsequently been transformed into pirate restaurants: owned and operated by enterprising locals like my new best friend over there, doing a bustling business in comfort food and no need to sweat the franchise fees,” thinks Palace.
He’s been assigned to clean up the case of Peter Zell, an insurance man found hanging by an expensive belt that doesn’t belong to him. Delving into Zell’s life, Palace tracks down family and friends to find the reason for the death all the while knowing — it really doesn’t matter.
Winters made his mark writing literary mash-up such as “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” — Jane Austen meets Jules Verne and others — and a Tolstoy parody, “Android Karenina.” He started writing “The Last Policeman” in February 2011. It is planned to be a trilogy, the second book being three months before Maia hits, and the last on the day of reckoning.
So how does much of humanity cope in Concord knowing they are doomed? “People in the main are simply muddling along. Got to work, sit at your desk, hope the company is still around come Monday. Got to the store, push the cart, hope there’s some food on the shelves today. Meet your sweetheart for lunch for ice cream.”
“What I’m dealing with here is the fact all of us will die,” says Winters. “That is the human condition — period. (That is) the one thing that links every human being to the other. What I’ve simply done in the novel is to accelerate the timetable.”
“The Last Policeman” by Ben H. Winters; Quirk Books, Philadelphia ($14.96)
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