When you write a book like The
Last Policeman, about how everyone behaves when the world is going to end
in half a year, people start to ask what you
would do. Every time I’m asked that, the question fills me with anxiety.
Would I remain on the job, like my hero, Detective Henry Palace, staying true
to my moral compass? Or would I choose one of the less gallant paths pursued by
a myriad of my other characters—those who run away from their spouses, commit
suicide, or get drunk and stay that way?
Most likely I’d be like the kid that Detective Palace brushes
against midway through Countdown City,
the second book in the trilogy. Palace’s search for a missing man has taken him
to the campus of the University of New Hampshire, which has been transformed
into a radical communitarian encampment called the Free Republic of New
I see a pale boy
hunched over the desk in a carrel, sipping from a Styrofoam cup, surrounded by
books, reading. His face is gaunt and his hair a greasy mass. On the ground
beside him is a clotted leaking pile of discarded teabags, and beside that a
bucket that I realize with horror is full of urine.There’s a tall stack of
books on one side of him and a taller stack on the other: out pile, in pile. I
stand for a second watching this guy, frozen in place but alive with small
action: muttering to himself as he reads, almost humming like an electric
motor, his hands twitching at the edges of the pages until, with a sudden flash
of motion, he turns the page, flings it over, like he can’t consume the words
I’d be that guy, the guy trying to cram as many books into my
brain hole as possible before sundown. But Detective Palace spends most of his
time trying to ignore the fact of the asteroid’s imminence, or work around it,
solving what small problems he can, rather than flailing in the face of the
massive problem he can’t.
So what, if anything, does he read in the meantime?
The Constitution of the United States of America by Alexander Hamilton,
James Madison, et al Palace is a by-the-book kind of cop, and since the book he mostly
frequently mentions in the novels (Farley and Leonard’s Criminal Investigation) is entirely my own invention, I’ll give him
the oldest text of American law.
The Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon In a first draft of Countdown
City, I had Palace carrying around a paperback of Decline and Fall, because I thought its heft and immersive quality
would appeal to him in quiet moments between subject interviews. But then I
thought the whole “world falling apart” thing was maybe just a wee bit heavy-handed.
Chronicles, Volume One by
Bob Dylan Detective Palace and I share a fascination with the great Bobby
D., in particular the late-1970s period when the Jew from Minnesota found Jesus
and got good and weird for a while. (The original title for The Last Policeman, as a matter of fact,
was “Slow Train Coming,” after the Dylan song and album of the same name.)
Watchmen by Alan Moore When someone asks Henry what his favorite book is, he cites the
landmark 1980s graphic novel. I suspect he likes the book’s complicated
questions about heroism and moral compromise. Personally, I like the portrait
of a familiar-yet-unfamiliar world on the brink of disaster. Along with Michael
Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Unionand
Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, it was a
major influence on me in creating this series.
The Bible You learn things about characters as you write them, and one
thing I’ve learned about Henry is that he has deeply ambiguous feelings about
religion. But the world he must navigate to do his job is supercharged with
questions about God. Specifically these: is this asteroid coming because
there’s no God? Or is it coming because there is a God, and He is pissed?