Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

Countdown City by Ben H WintersReview: Countdown City by Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books, 2013)

The Last Policeman (reviewed here)was a refreshingly original take on the noir genre. Hank Palace, a newly promoted detective, follows up a dead body found in the restrooms of a diner. The official verdict is suicide but Hank feels there is something more at work here and follows his gut. Soon he uncovers something sinister and is on the trail of what now seems to be a murder case. So what set it apart from the rest of the genre? Well, that would be the massive asteroid on a 100% certain collision course with earth, set to obliterate all life. While society crumbles around him, Hank stays true to his profession, intent on bringing those responsible to justice despite the fact that, in the long run, it will all be for nothing.

Countdown City takes off a few months later and things are looking grim. The police force has all but been disbanded and Hank is now a mere civilian. This doesn’t stop him from following his calling though and he still pounds the streets and looking after his own. Soon he is contacted by Martha, a desperate wife whose husband has disappeared. The remaining law enforcement units don’t have time for this – runaways are the norm given the circumstances – so Hank takes up the case. What initially seems to be an open and shut case of desertion soon turns out to be something altogether stranger and more dangerous.

The remainder of Countdown City unfolds more or less conventionally as our former detective finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into a world of conspiracies and freedom fighters. This aspect of the novel is handled with the same aplomb as in The Last Policeman, reading much like an updated Chandler tale. The rhythm of the prose and attention to detail alone are enough to place it in the higher echelons of crime fiction. However, as with its predecessor, it’s the extraordinary circumstances which elevate it above the norm.

Where the first installment introduced us to a world slowly becoming aware of its own impending doom, people slowly giving up hope and abandoning their responsibilities to the pursuit of hedonism, things here have deteriorated considerably. Lawlessness has now taken hold and dangers are everywhere. With the collapse of most industries there is a rise in black market trafficking of all kind of goods, from food to medicines to baseball memorabilia. While these are largely peaceful, community efforts there is a darker side where morality and trust have been thrown out of the window.

Running counter to this some citizens still retain a glimmer of hope and dignity. We see one group of people fighting against the government blockades which prevent refugees from the asteroid’s likely strike zone from reaching America’s shores. At the same time a mass of students and like-minded thinkers have occupied a university’s grounds, forming their own experimental society in which to see out the end of the world. Naturally a non-heirarchical utopia formed by a bunch of people who are barely adults is riddled with flaws but the very fact of their trying is the point, not their success or otherwise.

For me the draw of The Last Policeman and Countdown City is the thinking they inspire. We’re all used to the post-apocalyptic visions of descent into savagery and the collapse of society but could it be different? Could people hold it together enough to salvage something worthwhile. While I try to imagine myself as a noble hero like Detective Palace I know that it’s far more likely I’d join the bucket-list crowd, spending my remaining months exploring the world and all it has to offer before it’s gone. And would that even be a bad thing? When faced with certain annihilation do we retain all of our responsibilities to ourselves and others? Or are we somewhat freed from the social contract? Well, not to the point of murder, but to throw caution to the wind and simply pursue happiness. Can we do that now, in the absence of an impending apocalypse? And if not, why not? Then I realise that while I admire Hank’s steadfastness in his duty I still think he’s a little unhinged.

If you haven’t already read The Last Policeman then I highly recommend grabbing it and Countdown City while waiting for the conclusion to this brilliant and thoughtful trilogy. Come for the noir but stay for the extended detours which your train of thought will doubtless take along the way.

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Filed under Detective, Noir, Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction

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