“It’s all about promises,” Ben H. Winters, author of The Last Policeman trilogy, tells Paste. “That’s what holds civilization together: a web of promises. A marriage vow, a mortgage, the government promising to protect us in exchange for taxes and obedience to the law.”
It’s the theme of promises made and broken that haunts his award-winning series, which follows a rookie detective solving crimes as an asteroid careens toward Earth. Protagonist Hank Palace won’t betray his commitment to justice, even as everyone around him spirals into extremism and insanity.
“The thing I like most about Palace,” Winters says, “is that where everyone else is reordering their lives to deal with and in reaction to this coming threat, his whole thing is: ‘Why react to it at all? If we all just kept on doing what we we’re doing and pretended this wasn’t going to happen, we’d actually be able to enjoy life a lot more and preserve civilization now.’”
Take Countdown City, the second book in the trilogy, where Palace attempts to track down a woman’s husband after the man vanishes in light of the impending apocalypse. For Winters, the mystery isn’t why Palace cares about locating the man in spite of the world ending but why so many people wouldn’t bother.
“One of the ideas that emerged for me as I was writing this series was: If these things don’t matter at the end of the world, then we can’t fairly say they ever mattered,” he says. “If you make a wedding vow, for better or for worse, then that’s true forever—you’re supposed to hold on to that forever no matter what’s going on. So yeah, okay, the world’s ending, but you still made a promise. Maybe you’d say it’s almost a fundamentalist belief in the truth of these big ideas, but that’s just the way he deals.”
Though his moral compass is admirable, Palace’s flaws are what set him apart from the Holmesian superhumans littering the mystery genre. He regularly stumbles in his investigations, second-guessing his actions and theories.
“He’s not supposed to be a detective yet,” Winters says. “He’s only promoted to detective because so many detectives are quitting. So I wanted to make him flawed and unsure of himself. I was also trying to give the impression that he might be great at this one day. He’s smart and he’s obviously dedicated to the point of being a little crazy, but he doesn’t quite have his shit together yet.”
With the final volume of the series, World of Trouble, out today from Quirk Books, Winters has penned three pitch-perfect mysteries that raise questions like “Why be good in a world gone mad?” in addition to “Whodunit?” But the author is quick to clarify he didn’t write these books to prove an ethical point. First and foremost, he wanted to tell a good story.
“I wanted to write a mystery novel and ended up having the opportunity to think about all this stuff that was really cool,” Winters says. “The plot and story comes first, and then you realize you’ve entered this world of interesting themes.”
As for what his future holds, Winters hopes to continue writing mysteries that raise big questions. And while fans may mourn the end of The Last Policeman, they can rejoice knowing the series has been optioned for television.
Of course, you still can’t help but wonder what the author himself would do at world’s end. As someone who came of age in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Winters, like Palace’s sister Nico, has a penchant for the alternative college rock of the period. If he could play a song immediately before an asteroid hit the planet, it’d be a toss-up between D.C. punk band Jawbox’s “Savory” and R.E.M.’s cover of The Clique’s “Superman.”
“I will not say ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It,’” he laughs.
Mack Hayden has written for Paste, Relevant and Curator. He spends most of his time wondering when he can listen to Pavement and eat Chipotle again while worrying people will find out how much he actually likes Coldplay. He reads a lot and tweets from @unionmack, too.