Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Opinion and Lou's Views

LOU'S VIEWS: In two recent novels, a cop copes with apocalypse

July 6, 2013
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In most cases, when I sit down to write a book review, I have scraps of paper filled with comments and reminders. Page corners are bent back to help me find passages I expect to quote and notes are scribbled in margins throughout (assuming, of course, it isn’t a library book).
 

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My copies of Ben H. Winters’ “The Last Policeman” and “Countdown City,” though, are remarkably free from such landmarks.

Their near-pristine condition is not because of a lack of memorable moments and quotable passages. Rather, it’s because I barely stopped reading long enough to grab a pencil or crease a page.

In 2012’s “The Last Policeman,” the new “Countdown City” and a to-come third volume in the trilogy (all from Quirk Books), Winters sets the police procedural novel (You know: Cop solves crime) on a collision course with apocalyptic fiction (the end of the world is coming). The result is a mash-up with the best of both fiction worlds—a compelling crime drama set in a world where the stakes are higher because, well, the end is near, very near.

Here’s the set-up: Hank Palace has just made detective after a brief stint as a cop. The job opened because police officers—and lots of other folks—are “bucket listing.” That is, they’re taking off to pursue their life’s dreams in the little time we have left before an asteroid collides with Earth. This is no movie asteroid tha

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t can be diverted by some Bruce Willis heroics. No, we’re actually doomed. Remember what happened to the dinosaurs?
Palace is not in denial. He accepts that the end is coming. But while others are partying in New Orleans or tracking down high-school sweethearts, he’s continuing to investigate crimes. Transportation, mass communication, access to food, and the rule of law are steadily compromised, but not Palace’s determination.

“The Last Policeman,” which begins during the March before the October impact, launches with the discovery of an apparent suicide in a McDonald’s re

 

st room. That wouldn’t be unusual in these no-hope times. But this particular hanging doesn’t add up for Palace. And any reader of detective fiction knows that clues will lead to other clues, dead-ends will be followed and backtracked away from, and somebody’s going to get beat up.

Things have gotten worse by July, when “Countdown City” begins. Here, a former baby sitter asks Palace to find her missing husband as civilization continues to erode. I’ll avoid reciting plot details and allow you to discover more about these cases as Palace does. Why spoil a very good thing?

I’m still not sure how I feel about Palace himself (besides hating his name). At times, he seems like the most noble guy left on the planet. At other times, though, he’s so caught up in his single-minded pursuit of the truth that his stalwartness seems downright selfish and occasionally cruel. That would be totally fine if it seemed part of the intent. So far, that’s not clear.

A big plus is that Palace is far from perfect. I appreciate how Winters—on the faculty at Butler University—lets Palace become convinced that he’s come to the right investigative conclusions … only to have to revise his theories when new evidence is discovered.

And when big moral questions arise, neither the character nor the author offers easy answers. Winters is terrific at laying out Palace’s thought process and skillful about keeping the reader anchored in “what we know so far.” And while the seams show in the insertion of an obligatory romance in the first book, that’s remedied with a more subtle, believable pairing in the second.

The plot direction for the third book is clearly set up at the end of “Countdown City.”

Now that’s an arrival I’m looking forward to.•

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This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.

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