Winters, Ben H. Countdown City.

Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2013.

What exactly does “civilization” mean when it’s a sure thing that a direct asteroid strike is going to put the Earth out of its misery in seventy-seven days? Is there any point in trying to enforce the law, or even to enforce civility? So what if someone commits murder? He’s going to be punished soon enough anyway, along with everyone else.

Henry Place was a Concord, New Hampshire, cop for less than a year, and a detective for only a few weeks, but now all police in the country have been nationalized and Henry is nothing at all. But he keeps working cases. What else can you do? All around him, people are committing suicide, or “going bucket list,” or losing their sanity, or suddenly turning to religion, or hording supplies for whatever comes after Armageddon. But for him, it’s all pretty simple. “A man is missing. Find the man.” Continuing to think like and act like a cop is what keeps him, personally, from thinking about the unthinkable.

The woman who, as a teenager, used to babysit Henry and his kid sister, wants him to find her husband, the noble (she says) and charismatic (everyone says) Brett. He has apparently left her, which isn’t like him at all. He wouldn’t break his marriage vows like that. As Henry notes, “a promise is a promise, and civilization is just a bunch of promises, that’s all it is.” So he sets out on a quest to find the missing husband and persuade him to return. Of course, he has to do this by ten-speed bike (there’s no gasoline left), and he can’t resort to the Internet or even to telephones (there’s no electricity), so he has to fall back on very old methods of police work: Traveling, talking to people, and evaluating what they tell him. That’s assuming they’ll talk to him at all, because even the real cops no longer have any authority worth mentioning — or no more than anyone else with a firearm and ammunition. Some people are trying to do good acts and help others. Other people don’t give a damn and are taking whatever they want by force. (But if you really want to see all-out, take-no-prisoners war in the neighborhood, just wait till the water supply quits functioning.)

Henry follows his quarry to the Free Republic of New Hampshire, which used to be the University, down in Durham, and which is no longer very free and not especially democratic. And then to a historic fort on the Maine coast, where he discovers how the husk of the federal government is dealing with refugees from the eastern hemisphere, where the asteroid will actually impact. And as he digs deeply into it, the case changes and changes. And at the same time, Henry tries to protect his sister, now a nutjob conspiracy theorist who believes the whole asteroid story is a fairy tale concocted by the feds for their own purposes, and that the world won’t really be ending at all.

He knows better, of course. The whole world knows better. But such comfortingly insane beliefs are what some people need. “It’s just another one of those things that makes you think, well, okay, the end of the human race, what are you gonna do?”

The author’s ability to produce riveting images is amazing. I was especially gripped by the picture of students (or they used to be) in their carrels in the university library, a water bottle and a piss-jug at hand, surrounded by stacks of books. And they’re reading just as fast as they can, before the world ends. That’s going to stay in my mind for some time to come. Above all, Winters makes you see that the Apocalypse doesn’t necessarily come all at once, but little by little, one small disaster and collapse at a time.

The first volume of the trilogy was The Last Policeman (2012), and I cannot recommend them highly enough. I’m also going to be waiting rather anxiously for the concluding volume because, even though I know, in theory, what’s going to happen, . . . I have to see what’s going to happen.

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