In a sense, almost everything is pre-apocalyptic fiction, since who knows, we could have an apocalypse any day. There’s a long tradition of books and movies which are set after the apocalypse, with everyone scrabbling away in the ruins eating off brand canned food and each other, but Ben Winters had the interesting notion of wondering what it might be like in the weeks and months just before an apocalypse, a gag which I don’t think anyone’s tried since Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. And even though On the Beach is about a bunch of people counting down the days until fallout polishes them off, in a sense it’s still after the real apocalypse, with the rest of the world already off the count from nuclear war.
The Last Policeman trilogy has the whole world waiting for the end; a dinosaur-killer asteroid is months from hitting the world, and we join Henry Palace, small town detective, as he tries to do his job in a world which has decided that life’s too short to go to work any more. Long before the big bang, civilisation is falling apart as people walk away from their dead end jobs and society just stops working, one essential service at a time. In among this slow motion catastrophe, Henry tries to solve the crimes no-one else cares about.
It’s beautiful writing. I’m the world’s worst reader of detective stories because I really don’t care that much about whodunnit; I’m only really interested in who’s looking into it. Henry cares passionately about these crimes, but I spent the whole series of books enthralled by the way Winters brought a dying world to life, sketching in dozens of incidental characters and little details of social collapse which made the background more interesting to me than the foreground. And even Henry kind of realises this. He’s a wonderful creation, a young fogey who’s always wanted to be a cop and takes everything terribly seriously while somehow still being charming company. Henry ought to be ridiculous and absurd, but instead he has a wonderful dignity. He’s not good at his job, but in a world where no-one else is even trying any more, he’s as good as you can get.
The three books are terribly grounded; the crimes Henry investigates always seem to him to be the beginning of vast conspiracies, and then somehow peter out into life just being a mess of petty selfishness; everything in the end is ordinary, nothing extraordinary and somehow Henry sticks with it all, never faltering or thinking the less of the world or his place in it. And the final book has a wonderful subversion of that staple of detective stories. Henry has a sidekick, who can do all the sketchy things which Henry has only read about in books (and a recurring catchphrase as he demonstrates home made flamethrowers and god knows what else “Seen it done. Done it myself.”) But Cortez has his own magnificently simple reason for tagging along with Henry; perhaps the greatest beauty of the plotting in these books is that everything happens for a reason, and the reason is always simple.
And does the world end? Well, the books do. And it’s solid, and perfect and right. I’m not sure how Winters can follow this up, but if he never does, he’s still done a job he can be proud of.