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With The World Ending, Why Bother Investigating A Murder?

This article is more than 7 years old.

A newly minted police detective gets called to investigate what appears to be the pathetic suicide of an insurance actuary who has hung himself in a McDonald’s bathroom in Concord, New Hampshire. In Ben H. Winters’s novel “The Last Policeman” (Quirk Books), something doesn’t add up. So Detective Hank Palace wants to investigate, but everyone else involved wants to rule the case closed and forget about it.

Because there’s been a rash of suicides in Concord. Because an asteroid has been spotted that’s on a collision course with Earth. There are just months left before the whole world goes kablooey. So why bother with anything?

More and more people are out of work as businesses shut down. That McDonald’s? Actually a pirate restaurant that’s taken over the location of a defunct franchise after the fast food company collapsed in the market panic over the asteroid. Cell phone service is spotty because nobody’s keeping up with maintenance. People have been quitting jobs to check off items on their bucket list. Others are broke and poor and stuck. And the prices of everything have gone up. The country is falling apart. But Detective Palace pursues his case. He admires, “The perseverance in this world, despite it all, of things done right.”

Science fiction and fantasy have been among the few arts that have really channeled the mood of America since Sept. 11—our decade-plus of wars, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, Superstorm Sandy. Television, movies and books like “Battlestar Galactica,” “Children of Men,” “28 Days Later,” “Harry Potter,” “World War Z,” and “The Walking Dead” have evoked that background hum of more than a decade of American anxiety and failure. In “The Last Detective,” the doom hanging over everything is an asteroid. But let’s just read it as a metaphor for Great Recession America.

Palace is a square—one of the “Just the Facts, Ma'am” investigators of the old “Dragnet” TV series mixed with a dash of Dudley Do-Right. Which gives Indiana author Winters’s fairly standard noir tale an undercurrent of dry humor. At first, it seems like Palace is onto something. Then it seems like maybe he’s pursuing this deadend case (and his bosses are letting him) just to fill his last days, just to keep some semblance of normality. What follows are a bunch of twists and turns involving fisticuffs, a one-night stand with a witness (or maybe she’s a suspect), possible end of the world insurance scams, drug dealing, and a government conspiracy.

Winter constructs a sturdy, functional, entertaining page-turner. The resolution of the mysteries is okay. It’s the world he creates that sticks with you—a place undermined by a sense of doom. “I feel like I wasn’t made for these times,” Palace laments to a waitress in a diner at one point. “I don’t know, kid,” she replies, “I think maybe you’re the only person who was.”

This program aired on November 19, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Greg Cook Twitter Arts Reporter
Greg Cook was an arts reporter and critic for WBUR's The ARTery.

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