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New Review: Countdown City by Ben H Winters @QuirkBooks @BenHWinters
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The world is about to end – would you investigate a murder?
An asteroid is about to collide with the Earth in six months time, and wipe us all out. Would you give up your life and go of to fulfill your ambition, take solace in drunken pleasure, live in fear, or solidly carry on doing what you do? Detective Hank Palace faces this stark question, and as others walk away from their jobs he carries on. A murder has been committed, and it is his job to solve it – problem is, none of his colleges believe it is a murder, and neither does the coroner – just Hank’s instinct, and in a city that has a dozen or more suicides a week even that might be wrong. What’s the point in solving murders if we are all going to die anyway? As Hank investigates further, undercurrents begin to surface –who was the victim obsessed with the asteroid? Did he know something about it that the rest of us don’t? Is there a conspiracy afoot? In a world where politicians have run of to the Bahamas for one last sun-drenched beach holiday, where the US Army runs internment camps for protestors, where churches and synagogues are packed with worshippers, and religious fanatics are on the rise, the reader is confronted with hard questions – What is the basis for civilization? In an imminent apocalypse, would the world we know grind to a halt with a long, slow whimper? What is life worth, and, most importantly, what would any of us do, really do, if we only had six months left to live.
This book may win the prize for the most intriguing premise of the year. If you knew that the world was going to end would you keep on doing the job that you do now?
Detective Henry ‘Hank’ Palace is a man with on a mission. As the world is falling apart round about him, he tries to focus one hundred percent on the job in hand. As time passe, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to do this as more of the local population become apathetic towards anything other than their own wants and needs. This is where I think The Last Policeman really excels. Winters gripping prose drip feeds the reader details of the inevitable collapse of society. Events begin with just a few subtle hints of how bad things have become, but as time creeps ever forward you get a real sense that the situation is only going to get worse. Some give into their own melancholy, while others try to put a brave face on it. Through all this Detective Palace remains resolute.
Where I was surprised is that as the plot continues to unfold, there are some nice unexpected moments that force events off on completely different tangents. Winters plays with the readers expectations and I’ll admit there were a couple of moments that managed to catch me completely off guard. The thing to remember is that normal rules no longer apply, and character motivations are entirely different from what you would expect in a standard murder mystery.
It’ll hardly come as a surprise when I tell you that this sort of story prompts a certain amount of introspection? I think there would have to be something seriously wrong with you if you didn’t start pondering what you would do in this situation. Could you maintain some semblance of normality or would you throw it all in to follow your dreams while there was still some time left? It’s not often that a crime novel leads to that sort of internal debate.
The good news is that there are another two novels set to follow on from The Last Policeman. One set three months before the asteroid is due to hit and one set in Earth’s final month. I have to admit that I am already insanely curious about what is going to happen. There is a sub plot concerning Hank and the relationship he has with his sister, Nico. Both their parents are already dead and Nico is the only family that Hank has left. She is involved with some potentially shady people and there is a suggestion that there is a huge conspiracy going on. I do hope this is something that is explored in the other two novels.
Winters has left just enough loose ends in the plot to keep this reader interested. He has crafted a story that manages to avoid being entirely downbeat or pessimistic and instead offers just the smallest glimmer of hope. I have to admit that I kind of liked that. I’ll be checking these out as soon as I can get my hands on them.
The Last Policeman is published by Quirk Books and is available now. Highly Recommended.
Fifteen years ago a young girl was brutally attacked as she picked flowers in a meadow near her parents’ Swedish country home. The crime went unreported; the victim silenced.
Cut to the present. It is a bleak February morning in Stockholm, when Alex Recht’s federal investigation unit is assigned to two new cases.
A man has been killed in a hit and run. He has no identification on him, he is not reported missing nor wanted by the police. Investigative Analyst Fredrika Bergman has the task of finding out who he is.
At the same time, a priest and his wife are found dead in their apartment. All evidence suggests that the priest shot his wife and the committed suicide. But is that all there is to it?
Two different cases, seemingly unrelated. But it is not long before the investigations begin to converge and the police are following a trail that leads all the way back to the ’90s, to a crime that was hushed-up, but whose consequences will reach further and deeper than anyone ever expected.
The cover of Silenced has a sticker on it that boldly proclaims “For fans of The Killing”. I’ve seen the television series and now that I’ve read the book, and had a good think about it, I’m inclined to agree. Both stories feature strong heroines who are outwardly tough but also exhibit an emotionally fragility. There are other similarities as well - both cover events in real time and focus quite heavily on the procedural components.
Ohlsson spends the time fleshing out the character of the various investigators. I particularly liked Peder Rydh specifically because he almost like a petulant child trapped in a grown-up’s body, good at police work but a spectacular failure at almost everything else. Nice to find a character in a novel that has such obvious failings. He is not prefect by any stretch of the imagination, is jealous of colleagues, throws the occasional strop and his attitude towards female co-workers is terrible. That said, all these faults make him all the more interesting to read. As the plot unfolds you get to learn exactly what makes all the team tick and there is valuable insight into their home lives. These aren’t just police men and women, they are people too. It’s probably fair comment that some may find this depth of detail too much or potentially distracting, but personally I felt it gave the story much needed human element. It helps to better understand various character motivations and makes them all seem that much more real.
Like the other experiences I’ve had with Scandinavian literature, Silenced starts off very small but quickly builds into something that manages to be thoroughly engrossing. I can understand why literature from this part of the world is gaining popularity here in the United Kingdom, I’ve not read a bad example yet. The likes of The Killing and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo have become a bona fide cultural phenomena and I don’t see why Silenced can’t follow suit. I’d certainly be interested in reading more novels featuring the same characters.
Ohlsson also manages to blend in elements from the political thriller genre into the mix. There are key scenes that take place abroad and some subtle social commentary regarding Swedish immigration policy. There are hints dotted throughout the narrative that there is something much larger going on and that the crimes are the tip of the iceberg but it is only toward the end of the story that all is revealed. These unexpected but welcome inclusions help to strengthen an already intriguing story. The skillful way that the seemingly disparate story threads eventually begin to weave together is very effective, and works well. The final revelations lead to a satisfying twisted conclusion.
If you like the sound of Silenced you may be interested to know that I’ve just had a little rummage around on Amazon and it appears Kristina Olhsson already has another title released, Unwanted. This is a prequel to the events in Silenced and features some of the same characters. I think I may have to add it to my to read list.
Silenced is published by Simon and Schuster and is available from 30th August 2012.