By Ben H. Winters
Because a promise is a promise, Officer Cavatone, and civilization is just a bunch of promises, that’s all it is. A mortgage, a wedding vow, a promise to obey the law, a pledge to enforce it. And now the world is falling apart, the whole rickety world, and every broken promise is a small rock tossed at the wooden side of its tumbling form.
Countdown City is the second book in Ben H. Winters’s trilogy, The Last Policeman. former-Detective Hank Palace has been forced into retirement, but he has one last missing person case to solve. Maia, the asteroid that until recently had no impact date, is going to crash into the earth, devastating the entire population in just three months. In this pre-apocolyptic world everyone’s counting down the days they have left on this earth, and no one is concerned about a single missing man. Except for Palace. And as he wades through a bog of non-evidence and unhelpful people, he’s forced to face the fragility of society and the reality of his case—it’s nearly impossibly to solve.
Countdown City follows a lot of the same formula as The Last Policeman. Palace spends the majority of the book chasing dead ends, dealing with broken forms of communication, and eking bits of information out of a collapsed society. Towards the end of the book, he finally thinks he’s caught a break, only to be proved so desperately, horribly wrong. The roller coaster-like story blazes through a few more twists and turns before jerking to a stop at the end of a fun and wild ride. The mystery is well-written. It’s more complicated than it first appears. But there is something about the formulated plot that leaves the story feeling a bit manufactured. In some ways, Countdown City‘s ending was a little too neat, a little too satisfying. In a world where finding a missing person (let alone multiple missing persons) is a laughable idea, it seems out of place when Palace manages to solve his cases and tie everything up with a neat little bow during the last few chapters of the book.
The stiffness of the plot, however, is far outweighed by Winters’ excellent prose. Palace is an interesting character whose thought process and motivations can be difficult to pin down, and many of the supporting characters are well-developed, complicated people as well. Winters writes with suspense and urgency. He tackles complicated issues that sometimes outshine the mystery Palace is solving. The depth and insight with which he tackles those questions sometimes had me wondering which question was more important: what happened to Brett Cavatone? Or what is our purpose and duty when the world around us is collapsing? Either way, I’m on board with this trilogy and can’t wait to read the last one.