"What's the point in solving murders if we're all going to die soon, anyway?" blares the tagline on the back cover of Ben Winters' The Last Policeman. And it's an unfortunate tagline, because in its oversimplification it makes the story sound gimmicky and banal. The book is a murder mystery set against impending global doom. In six months, an asteroid named Maia will be slamming into our big blue marble, and there is nothing we can do about it. There will be no Bruce Willis-led mission to save us, and such a gesture would be futile anyway. The finality of it is inescapable.
We're so used to seeing apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, that it's easy to forget how rare pre-apocalyptic stories are. In SF particularly, stories in which death is descending upon us from the skies, whether in the form of asteroids or comets or invading alien fleets, are almost always action-adventures about dealing decisively with the threat. See, there's nothing we plucky humans can't overcome! Winters, on the other hand, has written a quiet and sensitive drama about living in the shadow of doom. It's not a bleak or melancholy story. It is, in fact, very briskly paced and compelling. Avoiding end of the world clichés, Winters taps into the many different ways we all might face death, from the expected despair to the fiercest forlorn hope. In the midst of it he places an emotionally low-key but driven protagonist, dedicated to his job and to maintaining what normalcy he can as the world shuts down around him. Just because a big rock has our name on it doesn't mean we should cut ourselves loose from law and order.
So why does Henry Palace — the young Concord, NH detective of the title — bother investigating a murder, at a time when all life on Earth has half a year left at best? And when most everyone else seems to think the victim is nothing more than another of the suicides that have become all too commonplace? Because he's a policeman, and he cares. He took it upon himself to right wrongs for a career, and he's pragmatic enough to know that if an impending disaster cannot be stopped, there's little benefit in simply wallowing all your final months in a pit of despair. In fact the few times we see Palace emotionally demonstrative are when his impatience at the behavior of others — a despondent colleague obsessed with every detail of Maia; his wayward sister and her anarchistic husband — gets the better of him.
The world around Palace isn't collapsing in the expected ways that years of apocalyptic fiction have led us to expect. Nothing is — yet — crumbling into a nightmarish, Mad Max hellhole of violent lawlessness. It's more like a business that's downsizing itself into bankruptcy, shutting up shop bit by bit by bit. Franchise restaurants are gone, but individuals have taken over the locations for pirate business. Bars, of course, and coffeehouses seem to be thriving. Certain commodities, like canned food, have become precious. Gas is virtually nonexistant, and many of the few remaining vehicles have been converted to some kind of alternative fuel. Money is still a thing, but largely worthless. Palace thinks nothing of leaving thousand-dollar tips for his favorite waitress.
Palace soldiers on with his investigation, despite every indication his victim was a suicide. There are just too many details — about the sort of man he was, about the company he kept — that don't add up. As a murder mystery, The Last Policeman is fairly conventional. I think this was a good choice, because another cliché trap that Winters could easily have fallen into would have been a reveal that the victim was involved in some vast conspiracy, and that it all would have been tied up in something to do with the asteroid and the government and whatever other X-Files hokum you could dream up. And in fact, Winters does cleverly tease us a little in that direction. (Though if the book has a fault, it would be the subplot involving Castle's sister, that resolves rather less well than I would have liked.) Mostly, he does so to examine the kinds of delusional thinking desperate people cling to when their fear is the greatest. Survival bases on the moon? Right.
The Last Policeman is rewarding in the end, because it neither champions idealized heroism in the melodramatic way of Hollywood fauxmageddons, nor does it resort to easy pathos. Yes, we're all going to die. The only difference for the characters in this story is that they all know the date. But what that means, in a practical sense, is how you choose to live in the meantime. As he investigates, one question Palace asks of almost everyone is "Would you ever kill yourself?" Many simply say no. So if you aren't going to be the person who throws himself in front of a bus, the solution is simple. You've got work to do. Do it.