Friday, July 26, 2013

Right and Wrong at the End of the World

Science Fiction* and Mystery are two distinct genres -- meta-genres really since there is a huge diversity of sub-genres in both of these literary universes -- that are often blended together. The combination makes sense to my simple reasoning. Both are frequently focused on determining moral truth and discerning what constitutes justice and ethical behavior.  By virtue of the world building necessary in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, the emphasis is on the sociological and anthropological norms of social worlds different from our own, while Mystery novels are often more concerned with how individuals navigate the rules of an existing society/culture. Just think of the great entertainments penned by Isaac Asimov who prolifically wrote and published for both Sci-Fi and Mystery readers, often blending the two. Other notable mash-up classics that have lingered fondly in my memory are Randall Garrett's wonderful magical Sherlock Holmes clone, Lord Darcy and Jack Finney's time travel masterpiece, Time and Again.

Enough of this reductive philosophizing -- I really am only indulging in these musings because it is important to note that Ben Winter's entertaining and thought-provoking trilogy The Last Policeman, is grounded in a long tradition. In the first volume, published last summer, we were introduced to Hank Palace, a Concord New Hampshire detective trying to do his job, the only job he's ever wanted, despite the fact that an 6.5 mile wide asteroid is on a collision course with earth. There is no way to stop it and it will assuredly bring about the destruction of the human race. As the book opens it is six months to impact and society is already frayed almost beyond recognition. Suicide is rampant, the economy is in free fall, and husbands and wives abandon each other to pursue what pleasure they can before the end comes. When a man commits suicide in a McDonald's restroom, only Detective Palace thinks there are signs that point to murder and that even in a world in chaos, murderers should be brought to justice.

In the process of investigating this suspicious death, we learn more about Hank's past, how his character was formed and the demons that haunt him. There have been tragedies aplenty in Hank's young life, and they go a long way towards explaining why he is dogmatically committed to upholding the law. As you might expect no one else gives a damn and he has to fight for every lead. Meanwhile his younger sister, an erratic character he is determined to protect, is chasing utopian chimeras and vague conspiracy theories. To top things off he falls in love, but she is murdered too.  The solution to all the murders are duly discovered, but unlike more traditional detective fiction, the truth brings no resolution. The asteroid is still on its way, society is even closer to collapse and Hank Palace is out of a job. Where do things go from here?

In Countdown City, published by Quirk Books** earlier this month, the world is now just three months away from armageddon, though as basic infrastructure disintegrates, you might not be faulted for thinking that the end has already come. In the opening pages Hank, now just focused on keeping his own life and house together until the end, is presented with a new quest, or case if you will: find the husband of his former babysitter who has vanished.  Because of the role she played at a difficult time in his life, he feels compelled to help her, though even he thinks it is a fruitless task.

It is impressive that with this second entry into the series, Winters is able to portray Hank Palace is a man who continues to evolve and who keeps faithful to his best self in a world without hope. Or is it a world without hope? Winter's brilliance is that he subtly shifts Hank from a position of maintaining  order and decency even when these qualities are irrelevant, towards taking action to aid his sister in a seemingly insane effort to avoid the apocalypse. It's also important to note that Winter's forces his characters, and the reader, to confront the possibility that even if the asteroid impact can be averted, is the world too far gone to save?

Don't get the idea, however, that all of these 'big' questions mean that these novels are dreary or slow. Both books are fast and engaging reading. I am only sorry that I have to wait until next year to ride along with Hank Palace towards the end of the world.

*For the purposes of this grossly overgeneralized introduction you may assume that I am sweeping Fantasy into the same basket.

**I am especially fond of this Philadelphia based publisher since the Philadelphia metro area has been my home for the past 20 years. These warm fuzzies are a bit ridiculous, after all, it's not like I can take any credit for the hard work of the folks behind Quirk, but still it's great to have be able to point to something so very cool thing that comes out of Philadelphia. It's my version of having a sports team to root for. They did provide an ARC for the purpose of review, but I've also purchased a copy.

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