Review: The Last Policeman Trilogy by Ben H. Winters

February 23, 2015 Books, Reading, Reviews 0 ★★★★

This is a bit of an odd review because I’m reviewing the trilogy as a whole instead of each book separately (and unfortunately there isn’t a combined edition, so the book title and cover are for the first book in the series), but it just feels better to look at these three books as three parts of a whole rather than as separate works. You definitely want to read these in order; it’s not so much the plot that continues through the books (though a particular thread becomes a focal point between books 2 and 3), but rather you need to read all three to get a good read on the protagonist, Henry Palace.

I’m going to try to avoid major spoilers, but since I’m talking about the series as a whole, there will be some unavoidable spoiling. I will keep it to plot points that are outside of each book’s mystery.

Though these books are mysteries and are also pre-apocalyptic/apocalyptic, they’re really more of a character study than anything else. The mystery exists as a frame for Henry’s mindset in a world that is actively falling apart. The setting was really intriguing for me; I found myself dreaming about living in a world on the brink of disaster, where we all know we’ll die on a particular day (or at least soon after), and how are we supposed to go on knowing that?

Henry Palace starts out the series as a young detective with the Concord, New Hampshire, police department. But by that point, there’s not much of a drive to actually solve crimes, particularly a suicide in a town full of people killing themselves. Henry doesn’t think it’s a suicide, though, and despite resistance from pretty much everyone involved, he pursues the case with a kind of determination that makes really great detectives. In the second book of the series, Countdown City, the world has fallen apart a little bit more; the detectives have been made to retire, but Henry finds himself back on a case, trying to find the missing husband of a woman he knew as a child. The third book deals with tracking down his sister, who has left Concord on what Henry thinks is a fool’s mission to save the world in literally its last days.

The books are told in first person present tense, which would normally make me cringe really, really hard. That point of view/tense has been showing up a lot lately, and in my opinion, few stories really benefit from being told that way. But in The Last Policeman trilogy, it’s pretty much the only point of view and tense that make sense. A story told in the past tense is predicated on the fact that there is a future from which the story is being told. In this series, there is no future. There is only the present moment as Henry experiences it.

I didn’t really get much of a feel for Henry in the first book, which was strange for a story told in first person. He felt very blank, but by the second book, you start to get more of his feelings rather than just his thoughts, and that really helped flesh him out for me. The third book really lets you inside of his head, and I do kind of feel like as the end draws nearer, he starts to open up more even to himself. It was a slow process, but I did think it was interesting to watch how he slowly starts to question his motives and even his identity as the world falls apart.

I’m not a huge mystery reader, but I thought each book’s mystery was pretty solid. They kept me guessing, which is fun. But for me, these books are worth it more for the gorgeous descriptions of a world falling apart and one man trying to keep it together until the end. Winters never comes right out and dumps information on you; you find out about events peripherally unless they directly affect Henry or Concord. You hear about Pakistan through someone reading a newspaper, and the full story isn’t told, for example.

On one hand, part of me really wants a story about the end of the world that focuses on the end, basically literary disaster porn. But that’s not this series, and on the other hand, I like it better for it. It focuses on one person during the end of the world. It focuses on Henry trying to not fall apart while civilization crumbles around him, and it’s an extremely effective character study in a fascinatingly genre-bending series.