It’s the end of the world and Ben H. Winters feels fine. The best-selling author has just released World of Trouble, the final book in his critically-acclaimed Last Policeman trilogy, which documents a young detective’s final days before a giant world-destroying asteroid hits Earth.
The Last Policeman, released in 2012 by Quirk Books, tells the story of Hank Palace, newly promoted detective with the Concord, New Hampshire, police force. Hank investigates an apparent suicide that he suspects may be murder, over the objections of his fellow cops who think he is wasting his time. The town is rife with suicides, one of many responses to the news that Asteroid 2011GV, or Maia, as it’s been named, will smash into the planet near Indonesia in four months’ time.
The novel’s sequel, Countdown City, followed in 2013. World of Trouble hit shelves this July. The trilogy charts a bleak course, and readers unfamiliar with Winters could be forgiven for placing it alongside dystopian works like Adam Sternberg’s recent, gritty crime-thriller Shovel Ready or The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic classic.
“Obviously The Road is an astonishing book, but that was never my interest, to do a mystery after the end of the world,” said Winters. “I loved the idea of watching what’s happening as things are unraveling, before the big event, and seeing how one disciplined and decent guy is handling everything.”
Winters’ premise – a pre-apocalyptic breakdown of society in the shadow of a world-ending asteroid strike –required extensive research. In the course of writing the trilogy, the author met with police officers, scientists, sociologists, economists, and other experts who provided the necessary background to establish a realistic world for his story. He even spoke with a former NASA astronaut, Rusty Schweickart, who tried to dissuade him from writing the novel. The ex-astronaut, who founded a group that wants to track potential ‘city-killer’ asteroids before they strike, believed that a story about a ‘mega-asteroid’ that decimated all life on Earth would distract readers from the much more likely occurrence of smaller asteroids hitting the Earth and causing massive, but not apocalyptic, damage. “I have not [had further contact with Schweickart],” said Winters. “But I encourage everyone to visit their website [www.sentinelmission.org], and find out about the deeply important work that they do.”
Winters avoids negative comments about his critics, few though they may be. Over the course of a short career, the author has already accrued a list of accolades that would make a veteran writer jealous. His first novel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, a madcap mash-up that mixed a Jane Austen classic with mythical ocean-dwellers, landed on the New York Times best-seller list in 2009. Four years later, the Mystery Writers of America presented Winters’ with the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original for The Last Policeman. This April Countdown City won him the Philip K. Dick award.
Hank Palace, the series’ young protagonist, is one of the driving forces behind the books’ success. He’s smart, but not a Sherlock Holmes-style genius, and unlike many hard-boiled leading men, he’s not a fighter. Despite the coming apocalypse and the increasingly violent breakdown of society, Hank is unwaveringly committed to finding the truth and in so doing, to bring some small measure of justice to the victims. “My guy needs the rules, he lives inside of them, they protect him,” Winters said of his creation. “As to where Hank came from, I think at first he was dictated by the requirements of the storytelling. Like, I wanted the world’s-end business to be background, and the investigations to be foregrounded, so what kind of mind would tell the story that way? What kind of person would live in the world that way?”
Hank is a dogged investigator, the last true detective. In Countdown City, Hank takes on a missing-person case for his childhood babysitter. The investigation is complicated by student radicals who have occupied their university and founded a ‘new society,’ and by the arrival of thousands of refugees on the shores of the Eastern Seaboard, fleeing the center of the asteroid’s expected impact zone. The plot is reminiscent of a recent news story from New Zealand. On August 3rd of this year, the New Zealand Herald reported that a family from the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, which is only two metres above sea level, was granted residency by a New Zealand tribunal because they would face climate change-related hardship if forced to return home.
“I would hate for anyone to see the book as an allegory, for climate change or for anything else,” said Winters. “But there’s no question that our world is ending: the climate is in slow-moving crisis, sea-levels are rising, and meanwhile access to clean potable water is in real jeopardy in many parts of the world. Plus there are TONS of unsecured nuclear weapons around, which no one ever talks about anymore.”
The popularity of things like the reality-TV show Doomsday Preppers points to the pervasiveness of such fears. Preppers profiles Americans who dig anti-nuke bunkers in their backyards and stockpile food and weapons in their basements. In the opening pages of World of Trouble Hank finds such a hideout while on a quest to find his younger sister Nico. Hank’s wayward sibling believes that the government is preventing a last-ditch effort to prevent Maia from hitting the planet and has joined a shadowy organization of conspiracy theorists intent on saving the world. Hank just wants to be with her in the Earth’s final hours; instead, he unearths evidence of a grisly crime.
Winters, who is already hard at work on his next book, “a dark and brooding crime novel set in Indianapolis,” has little interest in building ‘solar stills’ or spending his days getting ready for a hypothetical doomsday. “I think a lot of people live with a general sense of fear and unease, a lower-level version of the fear and unease that everyone is living with in my trilogy,” said Winters. “Not to mention the general fear and unease that everybody lives with just knowing that one day, for some reason, be it old age or Mack truck, they, personally, are going to die.
That’s the real slow-moving crisis, for all of us, right?” That crisis is at the center of Winters Last Policeman trilogy. What would you do if you knew you, and everyone else on the planet, had only months to live? Would you go ‘bucket list’ and try to realize long-ignored dreams or forbidden desires, abandoning your past in the process, or would you remain the same? And a deeper query: is doing the right thing meaningful in the face of death? So, after spending years grappling with these questions, what insights has Hank’s creator gleaned? Does Ben H Winters live his life differently now?
“I wish I could say that I’m a more focused and aware person, mindful at every moment of the preciousness of life. Alas, I remain as short-tempered, distractible, and trivial as ever,” Winters replied. “Life’s preciousness seems to be a hard thing to get one’s head around.”
Yutaka Dirks is a writer who divides his time between New York and Toronto, Canada. His fiction and essays have appeared in magazines and journals including The Sun Magazine, THIS Magazine, Over My Dead Body, and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. He can be found at: yutakadirks.com and @yutakadirks