January 28 – The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

The Lats Policeman cover

There’s something about a neo-noir novel (or movie, or tv show, or comic) that I can’t pass up, especially one with a great premise. The Last Policeman is about the end of the world: it’s coming and everyone knows the date. Asteroid 2011GV1, or Maia, is heading straight for earth. No question, it will hit. If you and everyone you knew only had a few months to live, what would you do? Hank Palace decides to keep working as a detective, even though most everyone else has given up. When he’s called into investigate an insurance salesman’s suicide, he’s convinced that it’s a murder. Even though no one quite believes him, he finds himself caught up in a story that’s much bigger than one man’s death.

The Last Policeman is a successful crime story, but that’s not really why I loved it. The crime itself and Palace’s attempt to solve it took a backseat to his observations about a world on the brink of destruction. People are committing suicide regularly, drug use is rampant and heavily controlled by whatever police force is left, and society is barely holding itself together.

While I was reading The Last Policeman, I kept wondering what it is about this gritty genre that I like so much. I’m not a big fan of traditional noir, mostly just unfamiliar with it, but there’s something about a noir story with a contemporary setting that I love. It’s partially growing up on crime shows and airport thrillers, combined with a desire for something a little bit deeper. For me, noir embodies this combination of action, plot, melodrama, and introspection that I just find irresistible. The stories seem so far from reality (at least far from my reality), but they still speak to this universal darkness, but also a kind of hopefulness.

I admit to a certain blind spot when it comes to the neo-noir. The Last Policeman occasionally dragged and I honestly wasn’t invested in the actual crime solving so much as the character study of both Hank Palace and our world right before it ends. There is also a sort of necessary blindness that comes from the first person narration: we only see each character as Detective Palace sees them. Unfortunately, he sees everyone as a little bit one-note, but that was consistent with his character and didn’t bother me, especially since the details about society as a whole were so poignant.

Suicide is a major theme in The Last Policeman. We see a character commit suicide, another one is suspected is suspected of it, and another one is revealed late in the book. Though it’s hard to pin down noir as a genre, the cynicism and hardness of the main character is always one of the first things that makes me think of noir. There are a lot of ways the cynicism can play out throughout the film or show or book, whatever it might be, but I like it best when there’s something to give the main characters a glimpse that their cynicism might not be the only answer to the world.

I started to say that I thought Palace is different from a lot of noir antiheroes because in a lot of ways he is very earnest, and moral almost to a fault. But that seems like a common theme in the noir genre as well, because the detectives are flawed, but also determined to find the truth at the expense of everything else. Maybe because it is the one honest thing they trust.

I won my copy of The Last Policeman from Quirk on Twitter.


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