What Would Detective Palace Read?

[written originally for the good folks at Amazon.com]


16046748When you write a book like The Last Policeman, about how everyone behaves when the world is going to end in half a year, people start to ask what you would do. Every time I’m asked that, the question fills me with anxiety. Would I remain on the job, like my hero, Detective Henry Palace, staying true to my moral compass? Or would I choose one of the less gallant paths pursued by a myriad of my other characters—those who run away from their spouses, commit suicide, or get drunk and stay that way?

Most likely I’d be like the kid that Detective Palace brushes against midway through Countdown City, the second book in the trilogy. Palace’s search for a missing man has taken him to the campus of the University of New Hampshire, which has been transformed into a radical communitarian encampment called the Free Republic of New Hampshire:

I see a pale boy hunched over the desk in a carrel, sipping from a Styrofoam cup, surrounded by books, reading. His face is gaunt and his hair a greasy mass. On the ground beside him is a clotted leaking pile of discarded teabags, and beside that a bucket that I realize with horror is full of urine.There’s a tall stack of books on one side of him and a taller stack on the other: out pile, in pile. I stand for a second watching this guy, frozen in place but alive with small action: muttering to himself as he reads, almost humming like an electric motor, his hands twitching at the edges of the pages until, with a sudden flash of motion, he turns the page, flings it over, like he can’t consume the words fast enough.

I’d be that guy, the guy trying to cram as many books into my brain hole as possible before sundown. But Detective Palace spends most of his time trying to ignore the fact of the asteroid’s imminence, or work around it, solving what small problems he can, rather than flailing in the face of the massive problem he can’t.

So what, if anything, does he read in the meantime?

The Constitution of the United States of America by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, et al
Palace is a by-the-book kind of cop, and since the book he mostly frequently mentions in the novels (Farley and Leonard’s Criminal Investigation) is entirely my own invention, I’ll give him the oldest text of American law.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
In a first draft of Countdown City, I had Palace carrying around a paperback of Decline and Fall, because I thought its heft and immersive quality would appeal to him in quiet moments between subject interviews. But then I thought the whole “world falling apart” thing was maybe just a wee bit heavy-handed.images

Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan
Detective Palace and I share a fascination with the great Bobby D., in particular the late-1970s period when the Jew from Minnesota found Jesus and got good and weird for a while. (The original title for The Last Policeman, as a matter of fact, was “Slow Train Coming,” after the Dylan song and album of the same name.)

Watchmen by Alan Moore
When someone asks Henry what his favorite book is, he cites the landmark 1980s graphic novel. I suspect he likes the book’s complicated questions about heroism and moral compromise. Personally, I like the portrait of a familiar-yet-unfamiliar world on the brink of disaster. Along with Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Nevil Shute’s On the Beachit was a major influence on me in creating this series.

The Bible
You learn things about characters as you write them, and one thing I’ve learned about Henry is that he has deeply ambiguous feelings about religion. But the world he must navigate to do his job is supercharged with questions about God. Specifically these: is this asteroid coming because there’s no God? Or is it coming because there is a God, and He is pissed?

For more on Detective Palace and Countdown Citywatch our video Q&A with author Ben H. Winters.

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Edgar round up, and moving on

I’m always telling budding writers to avoid cliches, and it’s one of the cliches of internet writing to update one’s blog by saying “…sorry I haven’t updated this in a while…” . For the record, I do wrestle all the time with how much to devote to maintaining my online “presence”; it takes so much effort, after all, to maintain one’s real-life, actual presence, not to mention whatever effort it takes to create the fictional realities we call novels.

So, anyhoo, I’m sorry I haven’t updated this in a while. And when I last wrote I promised a wrap-up on the Edgar Awards, beyond my perfunctory report that I won, a fact that still astonishes and delights me to no end.

I don’t remember much about the moment, other than nearly tripping and mouthing the words “oh my fucking God” over  and over on the way to the stage; the Mystery Writers of America , however, recorded my subsequent speech and here it is on YouTube. (The woman who speaks first, by the way, and who you see seated behind me while I ramble, is Charlaine Harris, incoming president of the Mystery Writers and the creator of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, from whence True Blood.)

In the speech somewhere I note how amazing the other book nominated were, and are, and you should read them: Complicationby Isaac Adamson, is an extremely clever, extremely twisty-turny intellectual thriller set in Prague; Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn is one in her series of melancholy detective novels set in South Africa in the 50s; Bloodland by Alan Glynn is aninternational thriller, an intricate multiple perspective page-turner; and Whiplash River by Lou Berney, which is not only a great action-packed clue hunt, but fucking hilarious. Read all those books.

The other thing about being in NYC for the Edgars was it reminded me how in love I am, and probably always will be, with that city; luckily I get to go back, on June 1, to sign books and hang out a little at Book Expo America. (And YES, just regular non-book-industry people can go to that, for that one day, but you have to do a special signup thing). So if you’re going to be there, please let me know, and/or come to the Quirk Books Booth at 10:00 on Saturday, June 1.

And then I’ll be “on the road,” a bit over the summer, reading at bookstores from Countdown City, the Last Policeman sequel. I think it’s 10 cities all together; you can check out the appearances page for the info. If I’m not coming to your city, please yell at me via the contact page or just arrange for me to Skype in to your book club. I’ve been doing a bunch of that, and it’s fun.

More soon. Or maybe not. I don’t know.


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Report from C2E2

I was a good two hours early for my appearance on Saturday at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, or C2E2, because of the mid-air collision of two facts: A) my new hometown of Indianapolis is (for mysterious reasons) on Eastern rather than Central time, despite being essentially due south of Chicago, and B) I am a moron.

Because though I call it “my new hometown,” I’ve lived here for almost a year, which is to say long enough to, you know, find out what time it is. The point is, I got my wife and kids up and out of the house in time to bust it up to Chicago in four hours flat (it’s a three-hour drive, but anyone with small children will recognize the travel-time inflation that goes on), drop them off at the Field Museum, park the car at the Convention Center, race across the seemingly endless parking lot, weave my way through throngs of people dressed like Batman or Gandalf or the dude from Walking Dead with the crossbow…only to have my friends Nicole and Eric from Quirk Books wonder what I was doing there a full hour ahead of schedule.

But once I mopped the sweat off my brow, I had a great time. I sat on a panel about mystery writing with this guy, who writes paranormal mysteries, and this lady, who writes an online comic about an evil sorority. As usual, I rambled uncontrollably, but I think I said something true about how writing a mystery is like writing two books at once: you’re writing from the front, figuring out how your hero is navigating his way along, and meanwhile you’re also working from the back, constructing the “what happened” part, deepening your understanding of the backstory. The two books interact with each other as you go, and as you make discoveries in the frontways book they inform the backways book, and vice versa.

Also at C2E2 I got to meet artist and author Eric Hudspeth, who wrote the forthcoming The Resurrectionist, and who continued the streak of Quirk authors—like Seth Grahame-Smith and Steve Hockensmith and Ransom Riggs—who are extremely nice guys. (Women also write for Quirk, like the two women who wrote Tiny Food Party! and who are obviously geniuses, but I haven’t met any of them yet). And best of all I met a whole slew of people who have read and liked The Last Policeman—and other people who I personally talked into buying The Last Policeman, right there on the spot

We also gave away many copies of the sequel, Countdown City, although it was the “advanced readers copy”, so I felt the need to awkwardly apologize to each recipient about any errors they might find.

Finally I did some interviews with journalists, one of whom took this picture of me smiling awkwardly posed in front of the new Policeman cover. atC2E2wposter

If you were at C2E2, and I shook your hand through your big fake Wolverine-claws glove or something, it was nice to meet you! If you weren’t there, please come see me smiling awkwardly some other time, like this Wednesday at the Edgar Awards Symposium in New York, or later in the summer at one of the bookstores listed on my new APPEARANCES page—the Countdown City book tour begins July 16 right here at Big Hat Books in Indianapolis.

I don’t know what time that event is yet, but I am sure I will be an hour early.



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Wait, which book am I writing?

I am in a very strange place this week, as someone who is writing a trilogy. And I sort of wonder if other people who have embarked on this kind of multi-project project have experienced this. (George Lucas? George R.R. Martin? You guys around to discuss?)

Because while I am busily trying to get folks to  buy and read Book One (The Last Policeman, which b/t/w is available right  now for the teaser price of $2.99 ), I am also starting to get nervous and excited because review copies are now being shipped for Book Two (Countdown City, which b/t/w is being given away right now on Goodreads). And meanwhile, I have started writing Book Three (as yet untitled, and if you do get a giveaway copy, send it to me, because I’d love to know what happens).

It all makes me glad I’m writing them straight through—as opposed to taking gaps of years between volumes, as for example Patricia Highsmith did with her five beautiful Tom Ripley books—and also makes me realize how very sad I’ll be when it’s all done.


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the last policeman goes global

Good news today today for those who have been holding off on reading of the exploits of Detective Hank Palace until they appeared in Turkish. The folks at my indefatigable publisher, Quirk Books, have let me know that deals have been struck for foreign-language editions of The Last Policeman in French, Czech, Korean, Japanese, German, and yes, Turkish.

If you are interested in the publisher details, let me know; and if you are interested in seeing The Last Policeman in a language not listed above, let me know that too, and I can pass it along.

Meanwhile I have seen advance proofs of the cover art, both for Countdown City: The Last Policeman Book II, and the new edition of The Last Policeman, and I am truly super excited about both. I will share them here as soon as I am allowed, so stay in touch.


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Counterintuitive truth of the day: have kids, write more

There is an unwritten rule that if you have three days to take a final pass at the copyedited manuscript of your newest novel before it is printed and any errors become permanent and irrevocable (sort of), then your daughter will vomit at school for no particular reason, and need to be picked up, so she can hang out in your office with you and promise promise not to be annoying, but she just wants to play on your computer for just, like, a half hour?

I’ve told the story before about how while writing The Last Policeman I had this huge, late-in-the-game revelation (i.e. that the novel should be told in the first person present tense, not in the closely observed third-person that I had been doing), started excitedly on what was going to be a huge difficult rewrite, and then my daughter (a different daughter than the one who is downstairs now eating toast and reading a mystery chapter book) was born the next day, somewhat delaying my progress.

But I can’t complain—I’m not complaining. When I was younger and single and childless, I would always tell myself, I’ll write later, because there  always was a later. After work—at night—I would drink a beer and stare at my computer for endless useless hours, pretending to be a writer. Now, with a busy family and endless calls on my time, I can little afford to let any spare minute lie fallow. Give me a random half hour, give me a full day (that never happens), and I will use it, somehow. That’s the gift that my beautiful children have given me.

Along with countless unnameable small joys and innumerable communicable illnesses.

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Cover to cover

There will be a new edition of The Last Policeman out in July, with an awesome new cover that complements the cover of Countdown City, the sequel, which also comes out in July. (I will of course post these covers as soon as my buddies at Quirk Books say I’m allowed to.)

last policeman button
Doogie Horner’s original cover: still fantastic.

One of several cool things about a second edition is that it allows me to correct a couple of mistakes in the first one–one a boneheaded science error, and the other a SUPER -boneheaded (because I should know better) spelling/usage error.

Have any of you readers out there spotted either of these errors? Send me a note via the contact form on the site here, and I’ll make sure you get a signed copy of Countdown City when it comes out. (Or maybe you’ll just send me ANOTHER boneheaded error that I can correct before pub date!)

* Right now I’m reading Stephen King’s On Writing,which besides recounting some super inspiring stories (like when he threw the first three chapters of Carrie in the garbage, only to have his wife pull them out and  tell him he was “onto something here”) includes a lot of great, down-and-dirty advice to the beginning (or not-so-beginning) writer. Like, take it easy on the adverbs, and like, read a lot of books. So far I wouldn’t necessarily put King’s book in my must-read-books-about-writing pile with John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, but it’s really fun.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” writes Stephen King, reproachfully.
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What’s in a name? Has anyone asked that before? I feel like maybe somebody has.

OK, so first of all, if you’re the Last Policeman superfan who created this lovingly detailed Wikipedia entry on the book, my hat is off to you to such an extent that I may never wear a hat again. There is nothing so gratifying to an author as the feeling that people are reading his work carefully, and now I know that at least one person has read this book very carefully indeed; I love that this anonymous encyclopedist correctly transcribed the name of my fictitious asteroid, 2011GV1, subscript and all.

The only thing inaccurate in this lovely entry, so far as I can tell, is the title of the forthcoming sequel, which Wikipedia now lists as Disasterland—which, to be totally fair, is sourced from this very blog, and an entry I made last week. Point is, since that time it has been brought to our (meaning mine and my publisher’s) attention that there was already a book by that title, and though you can’t copyright a title (ask Alison Bechdel, author of last year’s Are you My Mother?, which although a picture book is definitely not about a curious and melancholy baby bird, or the great Thomas Frank, who very purposefully borrowed the title of What’s the Matter With Kansas? from a much older book of the same name), we decided to switch to another title—which we then all decided we liked better anyway.

Point being, the actual title of the forthcoming second novel in The Last Policeman trilogy is (drumroll…) Countdown City. 

Now I’ll sit back and see how long it takes the masked Wikipedia writer to change it.  (Or maybe I’ll get antsy and change it myself.)



P.S. Yes, I know there’s an asteroid coming within 75,000 miles of the Earth tis week, and if I had not been so busy the last few days doing a furious final pass on the aforementioned Countdown City I would have written an elegant and attention-grabbing essay for someone’s editorial page about the metaphorical implications of Near Earth Objects, and in particular what they can teach us about the constant unspoken nearness of death. I’ll get the next one!



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old books never die, but they do get marked down significantly on Amazon.com

Here’s one thing interesting and weird thing about being a writer: when you’re done with a project, it continues to have a life out there in the universe, while you sort of forget all about it.

So, for example, these days all I can think about is The Last Policeman and its sequel, Disasterland, which I just finished the first draft of.
last policeman.

(That’s all I can think about professionally: in my personal life I continue to spend a lot of time trying to master my new electric toothbrush, and wondering how and why a raccoon died on our lawn.) But meanwhile, out there in the big world, a musical I wrote seven years ago was just produced in New Zealand; I was interviewed this evening by a writer doing a nonfiction book about the science and cultural life of bedbugs, because of my horror novel about the little bastards a couple years ago; and I just got a long questionnaire from a doctoral candidate in Finland writing his dissertation on mash-up novels, because of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters from 2009.

sea monsters

And I don’t know if other writers feel this way, but I personally have this strange and almost uncanny emotional distance from all of these old projects. I am aware on an abstract level that the experience of writing them was intense—like the experience of writing anything you care about and want to do properly. But when I think back on them now, I feel only a vague warmth toward them, like they are friends from elementary school who I remember being pretty cool, but that’s about it. Probably to get oneself properly invested in each new project, it is necessary to let go of the fervency with which you were committed to the last ones.

My elementary school.


Which is why it’s so pleasing to imagine the things still wandering around in the world,  occasionally being encountered, so other people can get excited about them—even if only temporarily, for the two hours it takes to watch or the two weeks it takes to read.

I don’t have to be obsessed with them, once they’re done. I can be obsessed with the next thing, until it’s done.


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a new year, a new look

Thanks to the great Eric Smith at Quirk Books for refurbishing this website, and I will try to honor his effort by keeping it up-to-date with all things Winterish!

Are you rooting for me, Mr. Poe?

Speaking of which, the big recent news is the nomination of The Last Policeman for the prestigious Edgar Award in the category of Best Paperback Original. This is actually my second nomination for an Edgar; the first was for The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, nominated in the Best Juvenile category in 2011.

It’s a good thing I have finished the manuscript for the Last Policeman sequel, because I will be  keeping my fingers crossed until the Edgars are announced on May 2.

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