Here Comes the Big One

A murder detective is on the case, world-destroying asteroid be damned.

Illustration by Sean Ford

We’re accustomed, in mysteries, to our detectives facing long odds. It’s what makes us cheer for them to crack the case: not just because we want to see justice done, or because we need to know whodunit, but because the powerful forces arrayed against one little investigator inspire our empathy, reminding us of the times we’ve felt the agents of the universe lining up to kick us in the shins. Think of Easy Rawlins, a black man in midcentury Los Angeles, forever harassed by the police. Or Philip Marlowe, talking his way out of frame job after frame job. Or Jake Gittes, duped, patsied, and nasally filleted in the first act of Chinatown.

But it’s likely no detective has ever felt smaller in the face of his fate than does Detective Hank Palace of the Concord, N.H., police department, the dogged center of Ben H. Winters’ sharp, funny, and deeply wise The Last Policeman. Palace may be investigating the death of a dull insurance man found in the bathroom of what used to be a McDonald’s one cold March morning, but he knows his detective work doesn’t really matter. After all, by October he’ll be dead. So will everyone in snowy Concord, everyone in New Hampshire, everyone in America, and everyone in the world. A six-kilometer-wide asteroid is bearing down, and it’s got a 100 percent chance of striking the Earth. Odds don’t get much longer than that.

In the face of certain destruction, some American institutions are holding up better than others. McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, and Dunkin’ went bankrupt in the market panic that followed news of the asteroid’s flight path. (Panera survives, although the owners “have undergone a meaningful spiritual experience and restaffed most of the restaurants with coreligionists, so it’s not worth going in there unless you want to hear the Good News.”) Cellphone service is getting spottier and spottier as towers go unmaintained, the telecom employees cashing out and “going Bucket List.” The Concord schools, on the other hand, have remained open, a dedicated staff continuing to teach quarter-full classrooms.

The PD is doing pretty well, considering; they’ve lost a few to early retirement and suicide, but funding is up and habeas corpus has been suspended—for drug dealers at least—thanks to the Impact Preparation Security and Stabilization Act. It’s just that no one really cares about solving murders when you’re busy Preparing for Impact. And how, exactly, do you Prepare? One of Palace’s colleagues likes to say that “sometime around late September they’ll start handing out umbrellas.”

That deadpan voice seems to be going around, as genial fatalism rules the day now that the chaos immediately surrounding the initial announcement has calmed. The cops crack deadpan jokes. In dive bars, patrons make deadpan jukebox selections—U2’s “Until the End of the World,” Tom Waits’ “Earth Died Screaming,” “and of course that R.E.M. song, playing over and over and over.” And many citizens, all hope for the future gone, have achieved the ultimate in deadpan by becoming actually dead.

Peter Zell, the dead guy in the bathroom, hanged himself, the suicide of choice around here.* (In the Midwest, they prefer shotguns to the head, but Concord’s “a hanger town.”) Nevertheless, Palace thinks something’s fishy about the death, and he pursues the case in the face of everyone else’s disbelief and disinterest. The victim’s relatives don’t care about Palace’s theories. The scumbags he shakes down for information are mostly exasperated by his diligence: “You know, a lot of cops are quitting,” one says. “Moving to Jamaica and so forth. Did you ever think about that, Palace?” Even when Palace turns up evidence that Zell may have been wrapped up in something big, his colleagues treat him like an overeager kid. “I’ll tell you what,” cracks the assistant D.A. “We’ll call it an attempted murder. It’s a suicide, but you’re attempting to make it a murder.”

What makes Palace such a fine hero is that despite the slim hopes for his case and the slimmer hopes for the planet itself, he gets to work—following his hunches and utilizing the skills he’s been honing his whole life. The do-right son of a professor—he jots down his investigative notes in the exam bluebooks he found in the attic after his dad’s death—Palace has always wanted to be a detective, and the fact that he’s won the job in the last days of everything doesn’t mean he’s not going to do the job right. He sees something of himself in Zell, “a born actuary,” in the words of his boss, so organized he alphabetized his cereal boxes. It’s clear Palace feels that declaring Zell, peremptorily, a suicide, disrespects all the guys like him who’d never do something like that.

Winters’ plotting is sure-footed and surprising; The Last Policeman, reportedly the first of a trilogy, is satisfying while still leaving plenty of questions unanswered. Winters, previously the writer of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, reveals himself as a novelist with an eye for the well-drawn detail: A frustrating encounter with his hard-living sister leaves Palace thinking that she’s come to look like “a picture of our mother that someone crumpled up and tried to smooth out again.” He’s particularly clever about the way that a coming apocalypse might be covered by the media, describing with chilling but amusing detail the TV special in which Dr. Leonard Tolkin, a leading astrophysicist, reveals, at last, the final calculations as to whether the approaching asteroid would strike the Earth or not. “CBS had won the bidding war for broadcast rights,” Winters writes. “The world was ending, maybe, but if it wasn’t, they’d feast on the ratings coup for years.”

Ben H Winters.
Ben H. Winters.

Photo by Lynn Harris

There’s a countdown clock on the lower-right corner of the screen accompanying cheesy B-roll, tracking shots of Tolkin walking the hallways of the institute, scrawling columns of math on a dry-erase board, huddling with his subordinates around computer screens.

Then, when the show goes live, Tolkin emerges from a conference room, “peels off his horn-rimmed spectacles, and begins to sob.”

Between The Age of Miracles and Melancholia, approaching apocalypse (or something like it) isn’t a wholly unique plot device. But in Winters’ clever telling, Palace’s looming problem is the same one we’ve been ignoring all our lives—that one day, we shall die—only now with a bit more urgency. The world that asteroid 2011GV1 has made is one in which all our fatuities are revealed. “I used to want to be a cop,” an elderly security guard tells Palace, to which the real cop responds with the rote aphorism he’s always used: “Hey, it’s never too late.”

“Well,” the guard says, and adjusts his cap. “It is, though.”

In this dire, doomed world, what the city of Concord needs—what we all need—is a guy who just wants to do his job. Late in the book, a frustrated Palace grouses to his favorite diner waitress—a kindred spirit who slings hash every day and still tries to expand Palace’s palate even though, seriously, who the hell cares—“I feel like I wasn’t made for these times.”

“I don’t know, kid,” the waitress responds. “I think maybe you’re the only person who was.”

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. Quirk Books.

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*Correction, April 9, 2018: This article originally misidentify the character Peter Zell as Peter Fell. (Return.)