Countdown City (2013)
Ben H. Winters (1976)
[Note: although I make it a point to not include spoilers in my reviews, this is the second book in a trilogy, and it's not possible to write about it without including some context from the first book, The Last Policeman. So, if you haven't read that first book yet, I suggest you jump back to my review here.]
Countdown City, the second novel in Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman trilogy, begins some three months after the first book ends, and only two and a half months before the day an asteroid is predicted to slam into the Earth with what are expected to be devastating consequences. Late in the first book, The Last Policeman (my review here), Detective Hank Palace lost his job on the police force, as government functions federalized and retrenched to focus exclusively on maintaining order; with the apocalypse imminent, criminal investigation is viewed by the authorities as having little value or purpose. For Palace, however, becoming a detective was his life-long dream, and as society collapses around him, continuing his work remains his way of dealing with the crushing reality of the looming asteroid impact.
The sequel opens with Palace taking notes as a woman who years earlier had been his and his sister’s babysitter describes the sudden disappearance of her husband, a former state police officer. With so many people leaving their families to pursue private bucket lists in the waning days of civilization, Palace initially pushes back on taking the case, skeptical that he can accomplish much. Eventually, however, she prevails upon him to search for her husband, and Palace --- reluctant to leave her with no hope --- agrees to give it a shot.
What follows, as in the first book, is a wild ride of miss-direction and complication, all spiced by the continuing and rapid disintegration of both civil and political administration, as well as peoples’ moral and social behavior. Though Palace encounters some kindred spirits --- individuals diligently going about their work as if the end of civilization was not a scant few months away, most people he meets exhibit motivations and behaviors clearly perverted by the coming apocalypse. Some focus solely on their own personal desires, others join up with one of a variety of religious and survivalist cults that have sprung up, and a few, like his own sister --- in a plot development begun in the first book, join groups that believe that a giant conspiracy lies behind government inaction against the approaching asteroid.
The whodunit aspect of the novel stands on its own as a great story, but what really makes this story (and the first book in the trilogy) shine is the pre-apocalyptic, dystopian twist that colors every step of Palace’s investigation: every conversation, every action and reaction of the people he meets. Most apocalyptic novels seem eager to get to the post-apocalyptic future, and build their stories around what that world might look like; The Last Policeman series, by contrast, explores deeply and seriously the psychological and social impacts of the collapse inevitably accompanying pre-apocalyptic end-times.
Other reviews / information:
I’m looking forward to reading --- and reviewing here --- the third and final book in the series, World of Trouble, soon.
It occurs to me that the psychological tension of The Last Policeman trilogy bears interesting parallels to Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach (my review here). Though Shute’s novel opens after a catastrophic nuclear war has utterly destroyed the North Hemisphere, it is set on the South coast of Australia, and the characters of his story initially believe they’ve been spared the worst. Gradually, however, they come to realize that the deadly radiation is drifting southward on the trade winds, and they recognize that their end --- their apocalypse --- is imminent, and unavoidable. As does Winters, though without the detective story, Shute examines a population experiencing and attempting to come to grips with the growing awareness that civilization, and probably humanity as a whole, is living in its final days. And, as in Winters’ story, some face the end-times by carrying on with what they see as their duty --- unchanged by the new reality, while others come undone in the face of the crushing finality advancing toward them.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf