The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters – a review

Right up front here, this is going to be nothing like the recent review of Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills. I didn’t keep what was essentially a reading journal with this. I read the biggest chunk of it the other night between midnight and 330am and it’s really just an addictive read. Reading the back cover, it says it is the first part of atrilogy, and it mentions that everything is happening on the brink of apocalypse, giving it a scifi vibe, but it’s not a scifi novel. It’s a mystery novel, a detective pot boiler, and it’s a helluva lot of fun.  That’s something else I want to get out of the way right at the beginning, it’s a great read, it’s a fun read, I can wholly endorse it if you like detective/mystery stories.

That’s also not what I really want to talk about.

While I said it’s not a scifi novel, it is a scifi novel. In their own ways, I think the majority of detective novels are really scifi novels. Whether they have a glaring scifi element, such as an asteroid hurtling towards Earth and all of the social upheavel going on because of it, or if they don’t have any glaring scifi elements. While reading The Last Policeman, the novel that kept coming to mind was Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. In each work we are plunged into the head of a detective who is maybe not the brightest flashlight we could pull out of the drawer, but by the end we find them the most reliable.

They are also aliens in their own worlds, as most great fictional detectives are. Even if you remove the End is Nigh plot device Winters uses, his lead detective is still a duck out of water. He doesn’t fit with the other detectives, he doesn’t really fit with the rest of society that he interacts with, everyone just sort of accommodates each other as best they can and try to make the most of it. We see the same thing with the lead character in Motherless Brooklyn, the tourrettes inflicted Lionel. His mental condition sets him apart, makes him alien to everyone else. Sherlock Holmes? He was certainly a bit of an odd-duck, too. As was Hercule Poirot.

If anything, this is part of the wonderful versatility of detective fiction and how it can approach scifi. In scifi, the alien is almost always the other character. They might be protagonists, they might be antagonists, that doesn’t really matter. But they are almost always the other. What detective fiction can do is make the alien the primary point of view, give us a set of eyes to look through that we don’t really get a chance to see otherwise. It allows us to see our own world as the other, as the alien, because the alien’s point of view has become our own.

Okay, back to Winters’ The Last Policeman. It’s a good read, check it out, and there is even some mention of moon bases. You might or might not be better off sitting down at midnight to devour it, though. Here’s the B&N link.

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