Countdown City, Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books, 2013)
Hank Palace is back in the second book in the “Last Policeman” series. Hank is no longer a cop, after his homicide unit was disbanded at the end of the first book, The Last Policeman. Indeed, the police aren’t doing much of anything anymore, just biding their time like everyone else until an asteroid strikes the earth and destroys civilization as we know it. As the time grows nearer, people become increasingly unnerved and unpredictable, most governmental services are just a memory, and informal barter sites have sprung up to help people get the things they need to survive until the end.
That’s the situation Palace is living in when he answers a plea from his former babysitter to find her missing husband. No one he talks to can understand why he’s bothering. It’s not his job anymore, and anyway people are going “Bucket List” all the time these days, as impending disaster causes them to rethink their lives and cut to the chase of what’s really important to them. But then again, what else is there for Palace to do while he waits with everyone else for the imminent end of the world?
Palace has a quality that reminds me of Lawrence Block’s great noir series character, Matthew Scudder. Neither of them are brilliant analytical minds or geniuses at reading clues. But each has a bulldog tenacity that will not allow them to give up until they find the answers they are looking for. That stubborness leads Palace — and his bichon frise, Houdini — to a possibly mob-connected pizza/bowling joint, a commune established on the former campus of the University of New Hampshire, and an abandoned fort on the Maine coast. Every time he thinks he’s getting closer to find the answer, he realizes he’s asking the wrong question.
I found Countdown City a reasonably compelling read. As I did with the first book, I found the psychological impact of an impending asteroid strike irritatingly underdeveloped. Winters’ characters are well-drawn and interesting, and I found much to admire in Hank and his dogged insistence on doing what’s right even when no one else seems to care anymore. This one ends not with a cliffhanger but with a plot development that promises some interesting possibilities for the third book, which I look forward to reading when it comes out.