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Editorial: Dystopian future awaits city’s readers

Peterborough was the setting for Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Gilmanton the backdrop for the bombshell novel Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. Concord as a city is a stopping point in literature, a bit player in fiction, until now. The capital city is ground zero, or might as well be, for The Last Policeman, the pre-apocalyptic novel by writer Ben Winters that begins a dystopian trilogy about how everyday people alter their lives when they learn that an asteroid will destroy life on Earth in six months.

The novel by Ben Winters, brother of local lawyer Andrew Winters, and its successors, Countdown City, and the soon-to-be published final book, World of Trouble, are all Concord-centric. Their protagonist is Henry Palace, a Concord police officer who decides – or is it that he can’t help himself – to solve what he believes was the murder of a man found in the bathroom of the McDonald’s on South Main Street, though he’s no longer paid as a cop.

The Last Policeman is the book of choice for the 13th year of Concord Reads, the one city, one book community-building program based at Concord’s public library.

A dystopian work of literature may seem an odd choice for a city that’s about to celebrate the 250th year of its existence. The book’s psychological antecedents include Nevil Shute’s post-nuclear destruction novel On the Beach and dark fantasies like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

For Concord readers, however, Winters’s novel is a page-turner set squarely in the heart of the city. The action plays out on Concord’s streets and in its neighborhoods. Scenes are set at the police station, the West Street playground, Concord Hospital and at the library itself. Winters knows the city and the state well, and his depictions of its places and people are not tacked onto the plot but ring true.

The book is an exploration of human nature and society at its best and worst, and a detective story. Facing what seems to be near certain death, some of its characters descend into drugs and hedonism, and abandon their children to the streets. Some kill themselves. Others do their duty and soldier on in the face of certain doom.

Some, like detective Palace, act heroically.

Readers are forced to wonder, “What would I do if human life was going to be erased in a matter of months?” Pray? Party? Prepare to survive in a cave in the hills? And what if the scientists are wrong and the asteroid misses or does far less damage than predicted? Will I be like the gullible ones who abandoned all for a second coming that never arrives?

The Last Policeman won an Edgar Award for science fiction in 2012, and a producer has purchased the option to turn it into a television series that we hope, if made, will be shot in Concord.

Its sequel, Countdown City, has been nominated for a prestigious Philip K. Dick Award. Programs based on the book will be held in the fall. They will include a scavenger hunt using the many locations mentioned in the novel and culminate with a discussion of the book with its author.

Programs and schedules, once finalized by the volunteer committee that runs Concord Reads, will be posted on the library’s website and appear in the Monitor. Copies of the book are available at the library and for sale in local bookstores. So scare yourself this summer while taking a fictional tour of a Concord that may, at least in Winters’s trilogy, not be around to celebrate a 251st anniversary.

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