Late in Ben H. Winters’ trilogy-capping mystery novel World Of Trouble, battered protagonist Henry Palace casually refers to himself as a twentysomething, and it’s a profound shock. Winters hasn’t concealed Henry’s age, but he also hasn’t made an ongoing point of it, and after everything Henry’s been through over the course of three books, he feels more like a veteran doggedly resisting retirement, as he pursues the detective work that made his life meaningful. It’s hard to remember that he’s meant to be a younger man, driven as much by personal need for purpose as by habit, and much less by any deep-seated idealism or goodness. It’s also hard to remember he hasn’t been doing his job for decades, given how deeply it’s ingrained into who he is, and how he’s affected this story. Over the course of three simply written, quick-moving books, Earth’s impending destruction has whittled him down to his essence. And that essence appears to be “grizzled old police lifer,” regardless of his actual age.
Winters’ 2012 series kick-off The Last Policeman introduced Henry (“Hank” to his dwindling set of friends) as a rookie detective, moved up in the ranks despite his youth, because most cops are abandoning their posts. The news that an asteroid will slam into Earth in just six months, probably destroying all life on the planet, causes a massive breakdown of civilization, but Henry still determinedly follows up on a seeming suicide he suspects was a murder. His peers and superiors don’t care, but for Henry, chasing the case is like restoring a tiny corner of the world to its normal order, where justice still matters. In the sequel, 2013’s Countdown City, he similarly pursues a missing-person case, a disappeared husband whom Henry firmly believes has abandoned his wife and “gone Bucket List,” like so many others pursuing last-ditch dreams before the end. With World Of Trouble, which opens with only two weeks left until impact, Henry attempts to find his wayward, fractious sister Nico, who’s similarly making her last days meaningful by running down a rumor about a rogue scientist who might save the planet.
The first two books in Winters’ Last Policeman series introduced Henry and Nico in pursuit of larger mysteries. Both books focused more on a familiar brand of twisty police procedural, made intriguingly unfamiliar through the apocalyptic setting and the submerged but ever-present look at the philosophy of lost causes. World Of Trouble is more of a character study, relying considerably on the goodwill Winters has built up for the characters over the past two books, and particularly for the interest he’s built around Henry and Nico’s ugly shared past and complicated mixture of mutual need and mutual exasperation. Unlike the other two installments, this book can’t stand alone; there’s a mystery at the core again, but mostly, it’s an extended coda for that sibling relationship, for planet Earth, for human society, and for Henry, faced with problems that clues and conclusions can’t solve.
Winters constructs his mysteries well and plays moderately fair with the audience, keeping most of the clues out in plain sight, yet still reaching surprising conclusions. But the mysteries are just a spine for a larger agenda: exploring Henry’s psychology, and the ways he represents human endeavor, which can all look empty in the face of death. The series isn’t pushy or expansive about the subject. It just lays out Henry’s obsessions with the blunt, action-focused prose of a crime novel, luring readers into the same nose-to-the-grindstone distractions that occupy him, and making them into a point of view where cracking a case is more important than the impending doom. The prose gets progressively blunter as Henry gets more desperate, trying to wring answers out of the world before it all disappears.
Winters got his start during the monster-mashup fad, writing Sense And Sensibility And Sea Monsters and Android Karenina for Quirk Books. Broadly speaking, the Last Policeman books can be seen as a similar mashup of crime story and horror, of noir mystery and science fiction. But this series comes across as warmer, more natural, and less calculated than the monster/classic hybrids. It uses familiar elements from many stories to plug a well-worn character type into a fresh situation, constructing a new world around him, then deconstructing him, all without veering from the mysteries that make this kind of character such a favorite. Maybe Henry seems older than he is, because by the end of this trilogy, he’s come to feel like a longtime friend, though one still capable of surprises. Winters makes riveting entertainment out of both an old dog and his new tricks.