When 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.
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 Beach, it was a major influence on me in creating this series.
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 City, watch our video Q&A with author Ben H. Winters.