Nancy McKibben's Reviews > Countdown City

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters
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bookshelves: mystery, science-fiction, reviewed
Recommended for: readers who like noir mysteries and/or science fiction

Countdown City
The Last Policeman Book 2
Ben H. Winters

I thought that Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, about a detective in Nazi Germany, were about as noir as noir mystery could get, but now that I have read Countdown City by Ben H. Winters, I have to say that Kerr has been out-noired.

Protagonist Hank Palace is a police detective in Concord, Massachusetts, but his position has recently been abolished - and why? Because Concord’s citizens, like citizens around the world, are waiting for the earth to be struck by an asteroid in less than three months. The police are now operating as adjuncts of the Department of Justice, their role to keep civil order in a world of rapidly increasing incivility.

Countdown City is the second in this series. The first, The Last Policeman, is an Edgar winner, which tells you something about the quality of the writing. The plot revolves around Hank’s efforts to find an old schoolmate’s missing husband, and the irony of his quest is not lost on Hank, as people have been steadily disappearing since the asteroid’s arrival was announced several months earlier. When the earth is about to be destroyed, or at least irredeemably altered, people find better things to do than honor their wedding vows.

Of course, the premise of the novel is what makes it so fascinating. Hank does his detecting against a backdrop of dwindling resources - for example, most people are riding bikes due to the collapse of the supply chain that once provided gas and groceries and nearly everything else - and bizarre and/or criminal behavior. His sister and closest relative is one of those caught up in what seems to Hank to be a doomsday cult, centered on the belief that the government could destroy the asteroid but won’t.

Hank can’t really explain, even to himself, why he puts himself in harm’s way to find a man who clearly does not want to be found. “But an investigation like this has its own force - it pulls you forward, and at a certain point it’s no longer profitable to question your reasons for being so pulled.” And it is clearly his way of coping with the coming disaster, described here:
The best scientific evidence suggest that on the day itself, the earth’s atmosphere will be riven by flame, as if by a prodigious nuclear detonation: over most of the planet, a broiling heat, the sky on fire. Tsunamis as tall as skyscrapers slam into coasts and drown everyone within hundreds of miles from impact, while around the globe volcanic eruptions and earthquakes convulse the landscape, splintering the crust of the world at all its hidden junctions. And then photosynthesis, the magic trick undergirding the entire food chain, is snuffed out by a blanket of darkness drawn down across the sun.

But no one knows. No one really knows. They have computer models, based on the Yucatan event, based on Siberia. But it all depends on final velocity, on angle of approach, on the precise makeup of the object and the soil below the impact spot. Probably not everyone will die. But probably most people will. It will definitely be terrible, but it’s impossible to say exactly how. Anyone making promises for afterward is a liar and a thief.
Still, Hank soldiers on, finding out things he’d rather not know, such as what is really happening to the thousands of catastrophe refugees who are fleeing in ships to the U.S. because their countries are in the direct line of the asteroid. As Hank runs his quarry to ground in the ruins of an old fort, he ponders his surroundings:
I linger there in the roofless shelter. This, then will be the shape and feel of the world; an abandoned shell, signs of old life, curious animals wandering in and out of ruins, the wilderness crowding in, overtaking all human structures and human things. In fifty years, everything will look this way, quiet and desolate and overgrown. Not even fifty years - next year - by the end of this one.
Despite such dark musings, the book remains readable, perhaps even hopeful, because the question that Hank is pursuing is not so much why a husband might have left his wife, but rather what it means to be human, and civilized, in the shadow of a collapsing civilization.
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Reading Progress

August 31, 2013 – Started Reading
September 1, 2013 – Finished Reading
September 2, 2013 – Shelved
September 2, 2013 – Shelved as: mystery
September 2, 2013 – Shelved as: science-fiction
September 2, 2013 – Shelved as: reviewed

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