Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters - Review

I figured out how I can make footnotes work!  Having the numbers be a mouse-over works a lot better than linking to a footnote at the bottom, the HTML doesn't like me.  Also, I've started doing spoilers in white, if you don't care about spoilers highlight to read. 

Tracks for this Evening: Love 2012, The main theme from Melancholia, Everything is Ending, Until the End of the Worldsome zYnthetic, take your pick.  Oh, and while it doesn't fit the mood, I think everyone should listen to this at least once.  

Man, I love me some good detective fiction.  There’s just something thoroughly compelling about someone pounding the streets and using nothing more than his wits and charisma to get answers out of people who only sorta have to answer.  Thing is, in the words of Miss Mazeppa1, you’ve gotta get a gimmick.  Eg, the detective is a sweet old lady2, or a medieval monk3, or it’s set in England during the War Years4.  And what’s a better gimmick than the apocalypse? 

Our Primary Antagonist for the series will be measured in
Astronomical Units away. 
That’s where this week’s book comes in.  Written by Ben H. Winters, The Last Policeman tells the story of a policeman solving a murder as the world prepares to end.  A few months ago, the world got the bad news:  Asteroid 2011GV1, Maia, is hurtling towards the planet and there’s nothing that’s gonna stop it.  And so the human race threw up its hands and cursed the sky, and society started to crumble.  

"Call it attempted Murder."  "Why?"  "You're attempting to
make a Suicide into a Murder."
Thus there’s two parts to the book:  The Mystery of the man found in a McDonald’s washroom.  (That said, it’s not actually a McDonalds, McDonalds folded ages ago, but the buildings are still there and people swept in to make a quick buck, but that’s not the point).  There’s a cool twist that we don’t really know whether it’s a murder or a suicide.  All signs point to it being a suicide, and it’s left unclear for most of the book whether the main character is just searching out of desperation.  Spoiler: It’s a murder, but at the book’s midpoint it does a great job of making the reader believe as much as the main character that it is a suicide.  

Speaking of the Main Character: He’s an interesting choice for who to follow.  See, the world's ending.  Who care's about murder, who cares about looking into a suicide, when there's only a few months left until an asteroid slams into the planet?  Well, Henry Palace cares.   He's resolutely Lawful Good.   He’s going to uphold the law, no matter what, and thank the gods there’s someone who will.  In the increasingly lawless society of Pre-Apocalyptic America, it’s not easy to Do The Right Thing™.  And seeing him stand up for the right thing, even when that means standing up a man stabbing him with a model of the New Hampshire State House5, because it’s the right thing to do.  Even most of his other cops don’t care a lot about the law.  Some sit around smoking pot, some run off on a Bucket List.  Officer McConnel, she upholds the law, but only because it might be her last chance to fire a gun and shout “Stop, Motherfucker!”  This is however, a problem for me, one of the flaws of the book.  See, Lawful Good characters are well and good.  There's nothing wrong with that.  My issue is that it's sometimes hard to believe.  We have this character who endeavors always to Do The Right Thing™but we don't necessarily know why he does it.  There's backstory that explains it, but the wound isn't quite deep enough to make me understand why he's so resolutely Lawful Good.  There were times when I didn't quite believe in the character.  Not the stabbing-State-House-model scene, that was believable, it's the scenes in the gaps where he's quoting police law, that strained my suspension of disbelief.  Which is odd, because more or less all of the characters are rather believable and well defined, with the exception of our main, who seems at times both very static but very thin.  

What I found much more compelling than the narrator was the examination of the various ways people, both named and unnamed characters, react to the end of the world.  There’s lots of religious fanatics, of course, there are always religious fanatics.  There are people doing all the drugs, there are people hoarding weapons because, screw it, maybe the Asteroid will agree to single combat.  And Asteroids don’t have guns!  There are a lot of people who abandon their posts and go “Bucket List,” writing or traveling or exploring their sexualities.  It’s all very believable, but I’ll admit that it’s not necessarily all that unexpected.  But there is one thing I hadn’t thought of.  The children.  There’s a quote that came out of nowhere and that I don’t think I’ll ever forget reading.  

"You want to pray to someone?
Pray to Bruce Willis in Armageddon."
“Detective Palace,” says Fenton6, pulling on her gloves with a series of fierce movements, “my daughter has twelve piano recitals this season, and I am, at this very moment, missing one of them.  Do you know how many piano recitals she will have next season?” 

Bam.  I had to put the book down and walk around the room, working out my feelings.  The way a parent would feel, thinking about their children, the people they’ve poured all their future into, wiped out without ever achieving the potential they might have?  I can barely fit that into my head.  And that’s not the only part.  There’s another scene with a mother talking about how her son will be a famous hockey player one day, keep her well off in her old age, before she catches herself.  He’s not going to be a famous hockey player.  She’s not going to have an old age.  But people still live in that mindset, because it's easier than doing otherwise.

The author captures some very deep, very emotional moments in the narrative, and it all sets the mood so well.  This is really the reason I would recommend this book.  While the feeling of powerlessness that comes from the asteroid crashing down towards Earth is one thing, the feeling isn’t just there.  There’s also a subplot about the military7, arresting Henry’s Sister’s Husband and Henry’s attempt to get him out, only to be stymied.  You really do feel penned in, no way to escape, nowhere to run, no one to save you.   And it comes through in the actions of the characters and the plot, as opposed to monologues that a less skilled writer might have employed.  

That's why it's the tone of the book that I like more than the mystery.  The mystery element is solid, but I can't say that it was a thoroughly compelling and twisty mystery.  It could have fit into a shorter book if that's all there was.  That said, the fact that it wasn't all twisty turn-y, and the eventual outcome of the motivation for the mystery is more of an emotional victory than an intellectual one.  It's thematic, more than dramatic.  And...that's a good thing.  The author is using his only sorta-strong skills as a mystery writer and incorporating that into his skills as a thematic writer.  I'd say that a writer who can acknowledge and utilize their deficits for the strength of the novel is a novelist worth reading.  

Fair warning, the book is written in present tense.  If that puts you off, don’t let it.  A lot of the book is told in past tense from people telling their stories (and their lies, many, many lies), and the present tense keeps things immediate, and for that matter, believable, I mean, who spends time writing when Armageddon has a due date?8  There are other sections (not enough, in my opinion, they were some of my favourite parts) that are just dialogue, nothing else, but they tell us everything we need to know.  I actually really appreciate the author trusting the reader’s intelligence.  

Worth mentioning, this is the first part of a trilogy.  I read it all in one day and didn’t expect it to end with such suspense.  There’s an ongoing plot, an undercurrent, that’s probably going to last all three books, and it’s going to keep me reading no matter what happens.  It’s this tiny glimmer of hope9, but because of its positioning in relation to Henry it feels just as threatening as the Asteroid.   While I’m on the edge of my seat and want to flip to the next book immediately, I can’t yet.  With the larger arc plot keeping me guessing and speculating, as well as the author’s ability to play with our expectations and assumptions of Mystery Tropes makes this a tantalizing and intellectually rewarding book.  If you're looking for a complex mystery, you may wish to look elsewhere, however, if you want an intelligent mystery, one aware of both its moves and its faults, then there's definitely something you'll enjoy.  But either way, read it for the background thematic elements.  They're what will definitely keep me reading the next book when it's out.

Related, go check out this trailer for
the book.  Dear Gods.
I hope I’ve been able to convince you to pick this up.  You can grab the book here, or follow Ben Winters here.  

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