When we last left Detective Hank Palace, the titular Last Policeman in Ben H. Winters’s kick-off to this trilogy, he had just reunited with his sister Nico, who is involved in a quasi-military, super-secret organization that she believes will save the world. And, still, the asteroid that is likely to end all human life on the planet just keeps coming.
In Countdown City, Hank (and by extension Winters) grapples with what the end of the world means in the short term. When humans have the date – October 3 – and the site – the Gulf of Boni – of their doom, how does humanity respond? In short, poorly. Many take off on ‘‘bucket list’’ adventures. Some give in to their inner psychopaths. Society breaks down not with a whisper but with explosions and murder. As Palace himself observes, ‘‘civilization is just a bunch of promises.’’ When those promises are broken, shit gets brutal.
But there is good in the world. Palace, a former cop, agrees to track down a missing person. He is forced to ask for help and is also forced to travel to the now-student-run University of New Hampshire campus, where all of the good intentions and excesses of the recent real-life Occupy movements are logically exploded. Palace’s case continues to wind him through a pre-apocalyptic landscape, one which is somehow more harrowing than it will be after the disaster.
That’s where Winters’s work shines. Yes, the characters are well drawn and, yes, his plot is engaging – but what is most compelling is how finely drawn and horrifyingly plausible his vision is. It’s hard to read about the world coming apart because Winters excels at making it feel personal, painful, and inescapable – and, also, somehow, sweet.