last policeman“I’m staring at the insurance man and he’s staring at me, two cold gray eyes behind old-fashioned tortoiseshell frames.”

As a species, we seem almost obsessed with our own extinction. Having been responsible for wiping out a whole mountain of other creatures, we are keen to turn this attention to ourselves and wonder what might happen if we suddenly came up against a challenge so great that we might not make it out alive. In The Last Policeman, the Earth is threatened by an asteroid, nicknamed Maia, which is on a collision course with the planet and is definitely going to hit, killing billions and leaving the rest to die slowly in the aftermath. Even worse, it’s coming in just six months.

Hank Palace is a police officer in New Hampshire, and has been in the force less than two years. All around him, people are quitting their jobs, running off to complete their bucket lists, or simply killing themselves. Hank, however, is different. He feels responsible as a cop, so he is doing his best to uphold whatever law remains in this strange world. That’s why when he encounters yet another suicide victim, he doesn’t toss the case aside when something seems unusual about it. Palace becomes sure that this man, Peter Zell, was murdered. But when there’s just six months on the clock and no one is much interested in the every day running of a doomed planet, how will Palace bring the culprit to justice?

This is one of the most breathtaking books I’ve read in a long time. Murder mysteries are old hat by now, but to combine it with the lawless, desperate setting of the pre-apocalypse brings us something new and magical. Palace is only twenty-seven, but always wanted to be a detective, and now he’s finally got his wish just at the wrong moment. He is certain that upholding the law is always the right thing to do, whatever the circumstances, and even though most of his colleagues have lost interest in their jobs, he is determined to see his case through to the bitter end.

The exposition is scattered in nicely and doesn’t feel intrusive. There’s no conversation where the characters sit around and discuss, “Hey, remember that big asteroid that’s coming to kill us?” They don’t need to discuss it – it’s all they can think about. Instead, Palace feeds us lines through his memories of the news coming out, making it all feel horribly real. The world is definitely crumbling, and we find out more about what other countries are doing through newspapers and TV reports, but there’s no big block of text. Some of it isn’t even elaborated on; at one point a character asks, “Have you seen what’s happening in Jerusalem?” but since Palace isn’t interested, it never gets explained. One can only imagine, though.

But while many people have killed themselves, disappeared or turned to a life of petty crime, there are those who are determined to keep their humanity and carry on almost as if nothing unusual is happening. Sure, petrol prices are astronomical, there’s no reliable phone service, the Internet is down for good, and drug crime is through the roof, but some people, from waitresses to coroners and, of course, Palace himself, just want to keep their heads down and do their best for humanity before it’s all over. The threat is never far below the text, as indeed would be the case in reality, too. It feels wonderfully realistic and a good portrait of how I think humanity would react. Oh sure, there are mass panics across the globe, but not everyone has given up. Maybe they’re delusional, but maybe they’re brave.

That’s really the wonder here – how something so fantastical has been written as something so realistic. The book is the first of a trilogy, and with the asteroid just five months away by the end of the book, it can only get closer, and I am definitely intrigued to read more and find out just how things will go for humanity before the end of the world.

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