Ben H. Winters
What would you do if you knew with absolute certainty that six months from today, a 6.5-kilometer-wide asteroid would crash into the Earth? If the resulting cataclysm would kill millions and the lingering fallout would later choke off large portions of the surviving population — would you opt for suicide? Or would you decide to leave your old life to pursue the pleasures you never found the time, or permission, to indulge? If you were Hank Palace, the main character of Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman novels, your answer would be none of the above. Instead, you’d get up each morning and go to work as a police officer in Concord, New Hampshire, as if nothing had changed.
In The Last Policeman and Countdown City, the first two installments of Winter’s planned trilogy, we follow Palace through two investigations. In the first, he’s convinced that a routine suicide is in fact a murder. In the second, his childhood babysitter employs him to track down her missing husband.
Both books are quality mysteries — as demonstrated by The Last Policeman capturing mystery fiction’s highest honor, an Edgar Award, in 2012 — but with the added element of the meteor, they are also speculative fiction. Through its introduction of a major deviation from our reality in the world of the story, speculative fiction provides a vantage point from which to observe and interrogate our world, our values, and ourselves. While The Last Policeman series are mysteries and apocalyptic novels, their most pressing questions concern what binds us together, what makes a community, and what our obligation is to ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around us. Over email, Ben Winters and I discussed what, exactly, these books are about.
Sam Costello: Interest in apocalyptic stories — from The Walking Dead to summer movies like Oblivion and After Earth to your Last Policeman books — seems to be swelling in recent years. What do you think drives interest in our society’s demise?
Ben H. Winters: I think it’s probably the most recent reemergence of an ever-present thematic interest in these questions, going back at least to the Book of Revelation. Wait, no — to Genesis, to Noah’s Ark! As long as people have been telling stories, we’ve been telling stories about the end of people. Why, I don’t know, and maybe there are certain times where we dig deeper into doom — maybe in times of deep-seated societal anxiety, in time of economic uncertainty and geopolitical crisis. Maybe we turn to fictionalized versions of the end of time to somehow ward off the possibility of the real thing.
These are really just guesses, though — I bet there are dissertations written on this subject by the score. As a storyteller, what I’m drawn to is a world with big stakes, big conflict, and big obstacles for my hero as he goes about his particular quests. The end of the world provides a lot of big, big obstacles.
Are the Last Policeman books motivated by that same interest?
To a certain extent, yes, although I’m more interested in the micro questions of human behavior than the macro. As in, how do individuals react in situations of enormous and unexpected peril? How do our professed beliefs and commitments stand up under pressure? But writing the novels has involved immersing myself in the larger societal questions, too; I’ve enjoyed learning about various of our complicated institutions (from water systems to international agriculture to central banking), trying to understand their typical function and then hypothesizing on the ways in which they would crumble under stress.
Which came first: wanting to write a sci-fi novel, a disaster novel, or a mystery/procedural?
The last. Not that I have anything against sci-fi — to the contrary, some of my earliest favorite books were by Philip Jose Farmer and Orson Scott Card — but what I wanted to do was a detective story, specifically one in which the psychology of the hero is as interesting as the plot itself. I wanted to take the archetype of “the cop who cares when no one else does” and push it, hard, put him a world where not caring actually kind of makes a lot of sense. So the science-fiction aspect (the world is at its end) blossomed out of the character, what the character needed to be put in sharp relief, and then to be tested.
By the way, I’m always surprised to see The Last Policeman trilogy described as sci-fi, although I certainly don’t mind it. To me, it’s speculative fiction — like Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, or Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, or (especially) Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.
The last few years have seen genre mashups move from novelties to commonplace. Some are fun, even revelatory, but others feel like pre-sold, pre-digested high concepts intended from the outset to be sold to and adapted in other media — that is, that the original works aren’t really ends in themselves, that they’re not complete until they’ve been transformed into something else. Did you worry about that when conceiving these books?
Whoa. No! I didn’t worry about that until right this minute!
Seriously, though, I never really thought of this as a “genre mashup” in the first place — although I can see why people describe it that way, especially because I’ve written a couple of mash-ups in the past. But really, my hope with the Policeman novels was to create a complicated, interesting character trying to solve crimes in an interesting context.
Oh, and P.S., I think taking the time and energy to write a novel because you’re hoping someone will make a movie or TV show out of it is insane. It’s like getting tattoos up and down your back and a nose job in the outside hope that this one popular kid will take you to prom.
One of the themes that I most gravitated to in both The Last Policeman and Countdown City is the idea that persevering in a job, even a job that feels — and maybe is — futile, is ennobling (and perhaps a little dumb, but honorably so). It’s pretty clear how Hank Palace feels about that, but what about you? What value do you find in work?
I hesitate to say that work, in and of itself, is ennobling; there are too many people working too hard for too little. I would definitely persevere in my job if the world was ending, but that’s because, like Palace, I have the enormous good fortune of loving my job. Most people aren’t so lucky, and most people aren’t paid nearly enough, and most people see a lot of the fruits of their labor end up in someone else’s pocket.
Here, I would say this: I find enormous value in creative expression, and I am lucky because I get to do that for my work. Palace finds enormous value in investigation in the name of justice, and he is lucky because he gets to do that for his work.
Have you ever had a job that was as seemingly pointless, but also as meaningful to you, as being a detective in the last days is to Hank Palace?
I spent about six months trying to be a stand-up comedian in Chicago. I’m not sure it counts as a job, because I earned maybe twenty dollars in that time, but it was definitely pointless, and also meaningful: I learned a lot about myself, primarily that I was a terrible stand-up comedian.
What’s the worst job you ever had?
Around that same time, I was hired to wear all pink and hand out Pepto-Bismol samples to people leaving a Chicago Blackhawks game.
The best job I’ve ever had is my current one, in which I write and teach writing.
Besides the emphasis on the value of work as giver of purpose, I was struck by the morality in the books, especially in Palace, Culverson, Dr. Fenton, and the other people who cling to some sense of normalcy and civilization, some routine, in the face of certain doom. For many people — the ones who go Bucket List, the hangers — their obligations go out the window. Their sense of what’s right is defined only by what they want. Doing the right thing matters less as they accept that they can’t control their lives and deaths. But the books seem to propose that this isn’t right. Why does morality matter in the face of cataclysm?
The question is, if morality ceases to matter when everyone is going to die soon, then when does it matter? Because (spoiler alert), everyone is going to die — maybe not soon, and hopefully not in a spectacular astronomical cataclysm. But life ends in death, for all of us, and so why do we ever do anything other than what we want? Why don’t we all just do drugs, hang out, have sex, eat cake — hey, man, you only live once, right?
“Morality” is a way of saying that just because life is short and ends in death doesn’t mean it should be a bacchanal of self-indulgence. At some point we figured out that there are deeper satisfactions to be gained, more long-term pleasure, and that availing ourselves of them requires trading some of that cake-eating and drug-doing for law-obeying and mortgage-paying and lawn-mowing.
So to a certain extent, Sam, you’ve answered your own question by waking up this morning and not murdering your enemies, or having a Hostess Cupcake and a forty-ounce for breakfast, or anything else that would give you immediate pleasure. All our lives will end one day, maybe sooner than we’d like, and yet we abide by laws, written and unwritten.
Clearly I love this question, and I’ve thought about it a lot, but I’m also not qualified to answer it, or even really discuss it in any depth. My job as a fiction writer is not to provide answers, it’s to create an engaging story that maybe draws your eye toward certain questions.
Hank talks a lot about responsibility to the law and to his community, but ultimately he seems to be truly driven by love and duty. Is our noble or altruistic behavior fundamentally driven by personal reasons?
You could certainly argue that whenever anybody does “the right thing”, they’re doing it to make themselves feel good, or to set up a later favor, or to earn karma points or something. But that doesn’t seem fair. It would make it impossible for anyone to be truly good — it would eliminate that category of person from the world. People are probably fundamentally selfish, yes — but if, a lot of the time, that selfishness drives them to do good works in the world, hallelujah.
Originally, the series was going to be set in Brooklyn, but it ended up in Concord, New Hampshire. Is it easier to feel a sense of communal responsibility in small towns?
I don’t know — I do know that it was easier to set a small-cast detective novel in a small(er) town. Which is to say, that decision was driven more by narrative purpose than thematic. (And also by personal: my brother and his family live in Concord, so writing a trilogy of novels set there gave me good opportunity to hang out up there. There! The selfishness of the human heart rears its ugly head.)
Another thing that really struck me about Countdown City was that, expressed by Hank to Brett Cavatone, you can’t abandon your promises even though the world is ending (“The asteroid is not making anyone do anything . . . anything anyone does remains their own decision,” Hank says to Brett when they finally meet). But if our promises aren’t invalidated when the future is gone, if we aren’t released from them at the end of the world, are our promises never ending (until they’re fulfilled, at least)?
Well, I think Palace would say “Exactly. That’s why they’re called promises.” But, see, rejecting the idea that you are released from your promises by impending doom is exactly his way of coping with said doom. Palace keeps his head down, keeps his mind clear of it, wants to believe that nothing has changed, not really. So I suspect that, for him, when other people break their promises, go Bucket List, commit suicide, etc., then they are somehow letting the asteroid win. Letting it make us weak, turn on each other, fall apart. Which is maybe, to me or you, a perfectly logical response, but he doesn’t see it that way, he really doesn’t.
Sam Costello is a writer of non-fiction, comics, and fiction living in Providence, RI. His writing has appeared in Rue Morgue, Punk Planet, PC World, About.com, CNN.com, Amazing Stories, and Critical Perspectives on Harlan Ellison. His webcomic, Split Lip, was called “the best horror anthology on the Internet,” by Comics Should Be Good.