Post-apocalyptia has become almost the default setting for fiction lately. Nuclear bombs come, wipe out all life, and then every story is about a guy, or gal, trying to knit jaw bones together to murder their way back to civilization. Or something about teens being subjected to weird murderous trials to make serums. I don’t know, it doesn’t always make sense. Maybe a story about life after the apocalypse could not be about giant bombs or viruses gone crazy? What about a world that just doesn’t care because they all know it’s going to be over anyway? A sort of, pre-pacolypse maybe? I bet there’s a great series of detective stories set in that sort of setting!
Spoiler warning: there totes is.
The Last Policeman got my attention from the get-go: Hank Palace is promoted to detective about 6 months prior to the world getting demolished by a gigantic meteor. There’s not any question about it, scientists have confirmed that we are, scientifically speaking, doomed. With the police department falling apart just trying to keep the peace and the detective department mostly shuddered, Hank’s acquisition of his life-long dream is bittersweet at best. Not long after he gets his new position, there is a suicide that he comes across, and like any detective story, there’s more to it than first appears.
I have a hard time figuring where to start with The Last Policeman, as any attempt to type out why it’s good is going to likely end with a gushy affair, but we’ll try anyway. I really dig the setting, for starters. It’s not the usual apocalypse seen in your Fallouts or Walking Deads or…Aladdin. There’s no zombies, no nuclear bombs, cities aren’t buried under the waste of war or disease. It’s life as we know it, only much, much worse. Gas is rare, groceries are rationed down to the bean, people are lounging around while inflation causes a pair of eggs to be worth more than the average house. It’s madness all around.
There a sense that the people in the story are adapting to all the events around them, while still acknowledging that it’s madness. There’s no mysticism about days of yore, or gawking at a functional TV, or even that weird disconnect of people who’ve never seen a computer who are suddenly able to reprogram it to be a doom machine. It’s just people, doing their people thing in a bad situation.
This is what makes Hank Palace, our lead, stand out so much. He very much feels like a man transposed in time, a call back to 1950s styled straight laced detectives. He’s clean cut, clean shaven, aside from a silly mustache, says sir and ma’am. Very square and by the numbers, which contrasts him all the better with the crazy world that creeps up around him all the time. His fellow officers are typically lazy, choosing to goof off on the job rather than run people in to sit in jail for a few months. Almost everyone around him breaks the law, while Hank goes about his day in a suit and tie. Reading his methodical investigation set against numerous ticking clocks, as most murder trails go cold quickly and the world is set to go too, is a pretty gripping story.
It’s a tough story to go into without giving it away, since it’s a detective story. I will say that it’s interesting reading the story with the knowledge that every day that goes by creeps the world closer to its inevitable doom, all while reading about these characters going about their everyday lives, just trying to get by while everything goes to rot around them. There’s a weight and heft to the things people do. Everything is done in a way that matters to the people, but is ultimately useless.
The first book, as this is a trilogy of rather great books, does a good job laying out the groundwork of the world, as well as introducing the main character and some of the other supporting actors. As the books go on, the world gets closer and closer to the end, and society tips a little further into madness with each page.
All in all, I’d definitely recommend giving the three books (The Last Policeman, Countdown City, and World of Trouble) a read. I can’t say much about the mystery of it, but the tone, characters and setting are excellent at drawing you in and getting you to turn yet another page.