Wombles are real creatures

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Ben Winters: "The Last Policeman"

Paperback, 352 pages, € 9.30, Heyne 2013 (Original: "The Last Policeman", 2012)

I don't think 2013 will go down in Fantastic history as "The Year of ...". This impression has gradually built up over the year and is confirmed when I look at the annual best-ofs that are currently beginning to pop up in the English-speaking world. No general agreement on the outstanding book or at least the Books 2013. And the small overlap of multiple answers tends to contain the familiar: Either sequels ("MaddAddam" by Margaret Atwood or the second part in Alastair Reynolds' "Poseidon's Children" series, "On the Steel Breeze"). Or at least a continuation of what authors have already established for themselves ("The Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman or "The Shining Girls" by Lauren Beukes).

Not to forget two titles that are also readers' favorites: "Wool" by Hugh Howey (in German: "Silo") and the trilogy to which this book belongs: "The Last Policeman" by Ben Winters. This year, both series produced sequels in the original, which are strongly represented in reader polls. At the same time, they submitted their first parts to the race in German. And I like "The Last Policeman" even better than "Silo" in its unobtrusive way.

The scenario

Unobtrusive - and with a premise that could hardly be more spectacular: in six months the 6.5-kilometer asteroid Maia will crash to earth and probably wipe out humanity completely. A few short, melancholy reviews are interspersed with the months after Maia's discovery, when the probability of an impact was not yet 100 percent, but the number climbed steadily. There is now certainty. Calm, fatalism and gallows humor set the tone.

Mass unrest, coups d'état, religious insanity: everything that one would expect in such a scenario also takes place in Winters' novel world. But you only get it from hearsay, especially in the iconic small town of Concord (the name!), New Hampshire, where the novel is set. Sure, drug use has risen sharply, there is a wave of suicides and strict new laws (for example a general ban on firearms; this would actually require the end of the world in the USA).

But the vast majority just carry on as before. Soldier onas it is called in English. In general, people just keep mumbling. Go to work, sit at her desk, and hope that the company will still exist next Monday. Go to the supermarket, push the shopping cart, hope that the grocery shelves are not completely empty today. Meet your loved one for an ice cream at lunchtime. And because the period of the pre-apocalypse is so long, most of those who set out to work off their "spoon list" have now returned. (I had never heard the word before: It means all the more or less spectacular things that one still wants to do before "throwing off the spoon"; in English: bucket list). A strange new normal has returned.

Silent apocalypse

"The Last Policeman" has the same starting position as the classic "Lucifer's Hammer" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, but makes something completely different out of it. It is a silent apocalypse à la Will McIntosh's "How the World Ends" ("Soft Apocalypse") or Lars von Trier's "Melancholia". The people are in the foreground, not the fireworks.

And when it actually comes down to the large-scale foreshocks of the catastrophe, Winters always integrates them in an admirably organic way in suitable situations: For example, when a protagonist despairs of the unreliability of his mobile phone (the network infrastructure is only insufficiently maintained, and many small ones Carelessness builds up). Or when companies close branches for minor reasons: For the employees there, this becomes a highly personal catastrophe, as they lose another piece of normality.

The main character

"The last policeman" is Henry Palace. A young patrol officer recently named a detective due to the general shortage of staff. If there were no asteroid, one could say that Henry's dream has come true. Accordingly, he takes his job seriously. Especially when he finds suspicious a case that appears to be just another suicide. Henry believes that the man was murdered and desperately wants to solve the case - to the complete lack of understanding of his colleagues. "Why are you trying so hard to solve this murder case?" "Because ..." I raise my hands. "Because he's unresolved."

And what better way to explain it to Henry? Is he aware that he sees parallels between the dead and himself? And somehow it can be put into words that you can just keep going got toeven if it might seem pointless - simply because any alternative would be even more depressing?

Henry is the linchpin of the novel. The fact that it comes across as pleasantly simple is not least due to the main character, who tells the plot in first person and present tense. Because Henry is capable, but not a genius. And he makes mistakes. All in all, Winters knows how to strike the right note. I wouldn't necessarily have expected that in advance, because firstly, the still young author has a suspiciously high output of books. And secondly, he had started his career in the middle of mashup fashion, which for me was never more than a once-funny-then-it's-but-also-good-appearance. By the way, Winters' contributions were called "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters" and "Android Karenina".

Crime at the end of time

With all that going into the genre background and existentialist philosophy, one shouldn't forget what "The Last Policeman" is above all: a crime thriller. With everything that goes with it, i.e. puzzling pieces of evidence (in the dead man's estate there are cryptic series of numbers that are related to the asteroid), false leads and the growing suspicion that Henry's investigations are being sabotaged. The case strikes a number of volts, and the author also has a few surprises in store - for example the suicide of a minor character, which occurs with a shockingly inconclusive approach.

Then there is a subplot that unfolds around Henry's sister - it looks like the secret government activities are on the trail. In the end - despite the clarification of the current case - there are still enough loose ends left to look forward to the second part ("Countdown City") with excitement. Then the day Maia hits will be even closer.