Monday, June 23, 2014

Detective Hank Palace Counts Down the Last Days of Planet Earth

This is the second volume in Ben H. Winters' "Last Policeman" series, featuring Detective Hank Palace, lately of the Concord, New Hampshire PD. Lately, because in just seventy-seven days, a giant asteroid named Maia is going to slam into the earth, ending life as Hank and everyone else knows it. Naturally, things are now a bit discombobulated.

In the course of things, all the Concord police detectives have been fired since there's really no point in investigating anything when the world won't survive long enough for the courts (were there any left) to try anyone. A few patrolman have been kept on duty in an effort to maintain some sort of order. But not surprisingly, civilization is unraveling at a pretty rapid clip, and there's precious little order left to be preserved.

Most utilities and other public services have disappeared and it's pretty much gotten to the point of everyone for him or herself. Lots of people are armed to the teeth to protect the precious water and other supplies that they've managed to hoard. Some have taken off, determined to complete their "Bucket Lists;" others have fallen prey to zealots, religious and otherwise, who promise some sort of miraculous escape once the Last Day arrives. Lots of people have given up already and simply taken their own lives, rather than wait for the inevitable end.

Then there's Hank Palace.

Even in the face of the end of the world, Hank simply cannot give up his dream of being a detective, and when an old friend begs Hank to find her missing husband, he signs on for the job, even though he no longer has any official standing. He also doesn't have much hope. As one might imagine, millions of people have simply wandered off or otherwise just gone missing, and without gasoline, electricity, phones, working computers and other such amenities, tracking someone is not as easy as it once was.

Hank is thus reduced to riding around New Hampshire on this bicycle, pulling his trusty dog in a trailer behind him, trying to find the missing man whose name is Brett Cavatone. The search takes Hank to some interesting places and introduces him to a varied cast of characters, but in the end, Winters' depiction of what the country might look like in the face of such an impending catastrophe is much more interesting than either Hank Palace or his mission.

Virtually everyone Hank meets wonders why he would persist in looking for a missing person, given the circumstances. Frankly, so does the reader, or at least so did this reader. In the first book of this trilogy, The Last Policeman, Hank doggedly pursued what he believed to be a murder case. At that point, he actually still was a police detective and it was easy to sympathize with him as a man determined to do his job as best he can, even as the world disintegrates around him.

In this case, though, he comes off much less as the last noble man and much more like someone who's lost touch with reality. Hank has a family situation of his own that might more deservingly demand his attention under the circumstances than the case of a man who almost certainly went missing of his own volition. That would probably have been a more interesting story as well.

The concluding volume in this trilogy is due out shortly, and I'm anxiously awaiting it. But I confess that I'm much less interested in the fate of Hank Palace than I am in seeing how Winters describes the final days of Planet Earth.

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