Second book in Ben Winters’ mystery trilogy depicts a Concord hurtling toward doom
There’s at least one thing Ben Winters got wrong in his new book Countdown City. Come hell or high water, impending apocalypse, worldwide power outages, riots and random chaos, the Concord Monitor will not be closing down. Valedictory edition? Hmmph! That said, it’s devilishly fun – if a bit disconcerting – to read about the slow undoing of our little city as an asteroid comes hurtling toward Earth.
“I wanted the series to be set in a place that was small but not too small, someplace where there’s a lot going on but isn’t a big bustling metropolis,” said Winters, who will be at Gibson’s Bookstore on Aug. 1 to talk about the second book in his Last Policeman trilogy. “There was something about Concord that just felt spot on.”
It wasn’t easy, though, to wreak fictional destruction on New Hampshire’s capital city. “I just love Concord personally,” said Winters, who was living in Cambridge, Mass., while writing Countdown City and his previous, Edgar-Award-winning novel, The Last Policeman. “I know the city pretty well, and I have warm feelings for it.”
Winters also had easy access to the city, thanks to his brother, Andrew Winters, a Concord attorney. He spent hours walking the city streets and watching people, conducted a ride-along with Concord police officer Craig Levesque and talked extensively with members of the department. “It was important to me to give a sense of the specificity of a place,” said Winters, who currently lives in Indianapolis and is working on the final book in the series. “For all the ways that the world is getting more and more homogenous, there are still some places that mean something for certain people.”
The Steeplegate Mall, White Park, the Concord Public Library and even Market Basket get cameos in the book, as Hank Palace, a Concord cop forced into retirement in the final months before an asteroid is scheduled to collide with Earth, crisscrosses the city in search of a missing man. It’s a fool’s errand in many ways: Dozens upon dozens of people have disappeared, pursuing final dreams, chasing some slim possibility of salvation, getting caught up in violence as resources become more and more scarce.
But Hank keeps plugging away, upholding the law, doing his “job,” even though there’s no longer a job for him on the force. He’s a prototype of one sort of reaction to impending doom.
“The asteroid brings out the best and worst in human behavior. It’s sort of this intensifying agent,” said Winters, who interviewed astrophysicists, snipers, economists and psychologists for the book. “When the laws start to fall away, what happens to human behavior? What happens to institutional behavior? What happens to relationships? These are the questions I wanted to ask through this book.”
What makes the book unique in the popular end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it genre is that it zeroes in on the weeks preceding Doomsday. It poses its questions about human nature in the face of certain death, not in the aftermath of destruction. Another element Winters folds into the genre is a traditional mystery plot. While he’s yearning for coffee, worrying about his rebel sister and pushing back thoughts of nuclear-size explosions, tsunamis and God-knows-what-else, Hank Palace is employing his detective skills to track down a former state cop who’s married to an old friend.
His journey leads him to yet another ethical conundrum (as if total annihilation weren’t enough): What to do with the shiploads of refugees landing on New Hampshire’s shores after fleeing the impact zone on the other side of the world – hoping for some chance of survival, however tiny. It’s here that the clash between law and conscience becomes most evident.
“We still have an obligation to do what’s lawful and what’s right,” Palace tells the man he’s finally tracked down.
“Those two things you said there, friend. Those are two different things,” the man replies.
Winters is well aware of the parallels that dialogue draws between his made-up world and our real one. “What I found as I played with these themes is that a lot of the elements of this imagined world became a metaphor,” Winters said.
If all of this sounds a little heavy, one of the biggest surprises of the book is how much fun it is. The dialogue is punchy, the characters quirky and the gallows humor delicious. After Palace is shot in the arm, he gets this advice from a friend who’s a doctor: “As circulation improves over the next couple weeks, you’ll start to get a persistent tingling, and then you’ll need physical therapy to work toward regular functioning. Then, around early October, a massive object will strike Earth and you will die.”
Winters said the humor came naturally because it’s a coping mechanism he employs himself. “I’m the kind of person who sees humor in everything,” he said. “Once again, it’s a reflection of what the reality would be. Sometimes the only way to accept things is by making light of them.”
Other characters in the book go into denial, latching onto any wacko theory that will allow them to think the world will continue, while still others use their final days to cross items off their bucket lists or to do whatever little bit of good they can.
These themes give readers much to contemplate as they await book three, due out in about a year. It appears unlikely Concord will have much of a presence in the final book, given the conclusion of book two, and it’s anybody’s guess what will happen to Planet Earth and the people on it.
Winters won’t say much. “A satisfying ending will make you feel that the literal worlds and the symbolic worlds have reached some sort of elegant conclusions,” he said cryptically.
One thing is certain: Concord cop Hank Palace will have his hands full. “I want to push him further and further outside his comfort zone,” Winters said.
(Ben Winters will be at Gibson’s Bookstore on Aug. 1 at 7 p.m. For information call 224-0562 or visit gibsonsbookstore.com.)