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'World of Trouble' by Ben Winters 

click to enlarge World of Trouble (The Last Policeman, Book III)By Ben H. WintersQuirk Books
  • World of Trouble (The Last Policeman, Book III)
    By Ben H. Winters
    Quirk Books

What would you do if you had only a year/month/week to live? Sure, it's the stuff of jacket copy, and a version of that question appears on the back of the final book in Ben Winters' end-times mystery trilogy The Last Policeman. But it's also just about the most profound question there is: What is the meaning of your life — and were that life to expire in the very near future, what would you regret not doing? And just as importantly, at least when it comes to personal safety: What would others do in those final moments?

World of Trouble proposes that all kinds of crimes would be committed by those crossing off items on their Bucket List before an asteroid smashes into Earth (we learn of a "Bucket List rapist" early in the book). Then there are the "catastrophe immigrants," making their way across the shores, taking any job they can get. Another development: Red and blue states have given way to red, green, black and blue towns. The red towns are "those seething with active violence." Green towns are "communities where it seemed like some some sort of agreement, has been made, spoken or implied, to plug along," to preserve some sort of common decency even with the end nigh. Black towns are empty, and blue towns "feel empty, but they're not, they're just so quiet that they might well be."

Hank Palace, the last policeman of the trilogy, briefly worked as a detective before the collapse and is now on a freelance quest to find his sister before all flora and fauna are consumed in fire and ash (he's got two weeks as the book opens). His quest takes him to a small Ohio town — a "blue town," he eventually learns, which means he can wander around without being taken prisoner by a Midwestern Mad Max.

I imagine a mystery fan will find that World of Trouble satisfies and exceeds all genre requirements (the first installment won mystery's top award, the Edgar, for paperback original). Palace is smart but haunted, obsessed with finding his kid sister; he's got a dubious sidekick who provides comic relief and a faithful dog; he does good policework even when it seems like it won't matter, partly as way of making sense of the world and quelling his sense of dread.

But I found Winters at his most ingenious in science-fictional mode, as that somewhat conventional (but not cliched) mystery plays against a backdrop of Super Targets occupied by workmanlike marauders and high school sweethearts reunited in a mobile home to enjoy an uninterrupted diet of fried chicken and country music. And the way that Winters tweaks that old joke — who would be more prepared than the Amish when our global communication network breaks down — is at turns funny, terrifying and surprisingly and satisfyingly wholesome.

Indiana appearances:

July 12, 1 p.m. at Indy Reads Books; Winters will read from his new book, play Bob Dylan songs on ukulele and give away a coffee roast named after The Last Policeman's Hank Palace

Aug. 11 at the Hancock County Public Library (Greenfield)

Aug. 21, 6 p.m. at The Crown Point Community Library (Crown Point)

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