Ben H. Winters is the contributor for this week’s Take Five, a regular series where we ask authors and editors to share five facts about their latest books. Winters is the author of The Last Policeman, available now:
What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?
Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.
The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares.
The first in a trilogy, The Last Policeman offers a mystery set on the brink of an apocalypse. As Palace’s investigation plays out under the shadow of 2011GV1, we’re confronted by hard questions way beyond “whodunit.” What basis does civilization rest upon? What is life worth? What would any of us do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?
Ben H. Winters:
1) Real Concord, Fake Concord
It was important to me that this pre-apocalyptic murder mystery get the details right on the killer asteroid (see #5, below), but also that it be true to Concord, New Hampshire, a city I love. Most of the key settings in the book are real places, and I have rendered them as true-to-life as the narrative would allow; this includes the Main Street McDonald’s where Palace finds his corpse; police headquarters on Green Street; and Concord Hospital, complete with the morgue in the basement. The only totally invented location is the Somerset Diner, which is drawn from favorite diners of mine in Bethesda, Maryland, near where I grew up.
2) Slow Train Going
For many months, the working title of this novel was Slow Train Coming, borrowed from the title and best song on the 1979 Bob Dylan record about Jesus Christ. (Like Detective Hank Palace, I’m eccentric in my Dylanophilia, favoring his work from the 70s and 90s.) My editor, Quirk Books creative director Jason Rekulak, was never sold on the Dylanesque title, and together we arrived at The Last Policeman, which now feels like exactly the right name for this book. I did retain the Dylan lyric for the epigraph: “There’s a slow, slow train comin’, comin’ around the bend.”
3) Past and Present
I wrote more than half of the novel in third person, past tense (“Hank Palace stood on the toilet tank and stared into the dead gray eyes of the insurance man”), before experiencing a major crisis one sunny September afternoon and deciding that this was just not working at all. I started over the way it is now: first person, present tense: “I’m staring at the insurance man and he’s staring at me, two cold gray eyes behind old-fashioned tortoiseshell frames…” For what its worth, that’s actually what’s called the ‘continuous present’, as opposed to the ‘simple present’, which would be “I stare at the insurance man and he stares at me,” etc. I use both in the novel.
4) The Ordler Chronicles
Detective Henry “Hank” Palace’s name, when he was first invented, was Detective Jerry Ordler, which, as we say in the fiction business, sounds pretty silly. Ultimately I give the name to the police chief, who makes one or two appearances in the book, and who felt tough and sturdy enough to wear this odd name with dignity.
5) Tiny Chocolate Asteroids
Among the fairly extensive research I did for this book was to interview a leading astronomer, Dr. Timothy Spahr, director of the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who you can tell is a very smart guy just by his title. Anyway, Dr. Spahr granted me a long and detailed interview, which was really, really decent of him—so when I bothered him, a couple months later, for another interview, I had sufficient foresight to show up with a box of donut holes for him to enjoy and share with his fellow brainiacs. The lesson, which perhaps you already knew, is that even preeminent scientists love donuts.