Ben H Winters

Underground Airlines – Ben H Winters

Title – Underground Airlines

Author – Ben H Winters

Published – 2016

Genre – Alternative History

I know that there are a lot of bloggers who believe that if you don’t enjoy a book you should just keep it to yourself and only share positive reviews. I’m not one of them. If you’ve been following my blog for a while you will know that I am a huge fan of ‘The Last Policeman‘ trilogy by Ben H Winters so I was thrilled when I heard he had a new book being published and even treated myself to a signed, limited edition copy, but perhaps, for once, I should have waited to find out more about the book because I’ve come across alternative histories before that I’ve thought sounded interesting but were disappointing in their execution.

What if slavery had never been abolished? The story is set in the present time but in an America where slavery still exists, shaped differently as a result of the Civil War. The protagonist is ‘Victor’, a man who works undercover to track down escaped slaves, thwarting the efforts of the “underground airlines” who try to help these unfortunates escape to freedom. The rub here is that Victor is himself black (‘moderate charcoal, brass highlights, #41’) and this isn’t a career he is pursuing of his own fee will.

Sent to Indianapolis to pursue ‘Jackdaw’, Victor is unsettled by a number of anomalies in the case he is being asked to investigate and equally disturbed by his unanticipated involvement with a young mother and her son. His undercover work and investigations contribute the thriller element to the book as the truth about Jackdaw and his escape point to larger forces at work.

I found the book incredibly slow, there was a lot of internal dialogue from Victor and a lack of pace. I also didn’t find Victor a particularly gripping character, within the story he is something of a chameleon and perhaps that didn’t help me to engage with him. If you compare him to Hank from The Last Policeman he was (literally) worlds apart. I appreciate that the subject is an incredibly serious one, so a lack of any sort of levity might be expected, but while the end of the world wasn’t exactly a laughing matter there was still humour to be found.

I appreciate that the issue is thorught-provoking but instead of raising deep questions about race and the risks of ignoring where we’ve come from and what we’ve learned, my thoughts were on a much more prosaic level about the practicalities of the world Winters had created. The book made reference to real historical characters (from world leaders to musicians) but that distracted me by wanting to know more of the ‘how did that happen?’ or ‘what about so-and-so?’.

Perhaps my disappointment in the book has as much to do with this being outside my usual genre as anything else. I’m not sure if that means I should read more widely so my expectations are better managed or stick more narrowly to what I know I like (and I have romance book to review that makes me think the latter may be the best option). Perhaps the subject matter, especially at the present time, feels too uncomfortable and the lessons too worthy to make it enjoyable fiction?


World of Trouble – Ben H Winters

Title – World of TroubleWorldOfTrouble

Author – Ben H Winters

Published – 15 July 2014 (but not until 15 August in the UK)

Genre – Crime fiction / apocalyptic fiction / pre-apocalyptic crime fiction

So this is it – the final instalment. Any feelings of anticipation I had for this third and final book in the Last Policeman trilogy have been tinged with dread as I know that, whatever the outcome, I must say goodbye to Hank and Horatio.

When the book opens there are just 14 days left until asteroid Maia is due to hit the Earth. Hank has left the safety of the group at the Police House and is on the road for his final case – to find out what has happened to his sister Nico.  I know that it’s this search that keeps him going, gives him some purpose in the final days, but it’s also clear that this coping strategy is really the equivalent of sticking your head under a pillow and hoping the whole asteroid thing will go away.

The crime thread of the story centres around Hank’s efforts to locate Nico and his attempts to explain the situation he finds at the Ohio police station that is the rendezvous point at which he hoped to find her. As less and less technology and resources become available to him he has to draw on every (brief) moment of training he had to collect and analyse evidence, administer first aid, negotiate with armed opponents. Despite the ‘race against time’ dimension that the meteor provides there’s still a mystery to solve, moments of peril for our hero and a few ‘aha!’ moments for those who read the preceding books.

This is a book (and series) where first person, present tense, really works, drawing you into Hank’s life and the immediacy of the problem he faces. Winters’ writing is, as ever, excellent – despite his sparse prose you really get a picture of the environment that Hank and Horatio encounter. Although Winters still manages to inject some humour into the story it remains both poignant and thought-provoking (pretty much true for the whole series). What would you do, what would you care about? There is one particular quote about death and loss that will stay with me.

For once I can safely say that this is not a book that can stand on its own. There is too much you would miss out on, too many subtleties which would be lost. In another universe this was probably published as one long book, and part of the charm for this reader has been the anticipation, the wait for another year to find out what happens next. Anyway – would you read The Return of the King without reading the preceding two volumes? No? Well the same is true here – read the series.

I hope that I won’t give anything away by saying that the book brought a tear to my eye (a couple of times) and I think that Winters gave Hank the ending that he deserved. Whilst I can’t help but be disappointed that this is the end  – I do look forward to whatever venture Winters undertakes next.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another point of view over at Eamo the Geek.


Author interview – Ben H Winters

BenHWintersI am delighted that as a guinea pig for my first author interview I have Ben H Winters, author of the Hank Palace trilogy. The Last Policeman (book 1) was one of my 5 star reads last year and the excellent Countdown City is published this week.

You’re described on Wikipedia as “author, journalist and playwright” – is that how you see yourself?

Well, you know what they say about Wikipedia: Everything you read there is literally true. And yes, I am technically still a playwright, as a couple things I wrote in the past are produced now and again, but I haven’t written a new play or libretto in about eight years. I miss it! As for journalism, that’s how I started my career as a writer—at a Chicago free weekly called NewCity—but again, I’ve been pretty dormant on that front for years. I would more accurately call myself “an author and teacher.” When I’m not writing, I teach in the Master’s Program at Butler University, in Indianapolis, and online for a marvellous place in Boston called Grub Street.

I was unable to fix on a single genre to describe your book – how would you describe it and do you think being able to pigeonhole fiction into a genre is important? 

I think it’s very important for people who sell books for a living, and not that important for people who write them. For the record, I think of these books (I’m including The Last Policeman, the sequel Countdown City, and the third in the trilogy, to come next summer) as mystery novels or detective novels, although I’m delighted to see them called “science fiction” by others. Really, there are only two kinds of books: good, and bad. I hope mine are good.

Hank is pretty unusual, especially as the main character in crime fiction. How do you think he would describe himself? 

Inexperienced? Focused? Actually, he would be embarrassed about the question.

When you started The Last Policeman did you plan that it would be a trilogy and if so did you know how it was going to end? 

The idea was for one novel, but my editor at Quirk felt it would make sense as a trilogy, and I agreed. I knew how it was going to end only in the very broadest sense: I have known from the beginning that at the end of the trilogy an asteroid will smash into the Earth. That fact being, after all, the animating conceit of the whole package. I’ve also known that in each book, Hank would try to solve one big, complicated crime while civilization slipped further into chaos.

What gave you the initial idea of the “Earth on the brink of disaster” setting? 

I think if writers knew where interesting ideas came from, we would have a lot more of them! I knew I wanted to write a mystery story with an unusual, heightened setting, to test the fortitude of a very dedicated hero.

With the critical acclaim that you’ve now received for The Last Policeman, including the Edgar Award earlier in the year, do you now regret having a setting that had such a fixed end point? 

Thanks, first of all—I’m delighted with the response, obviously, and particularly to have won the Edgar. And in terms of regrets, not really—without that fixed end point to inspire the story, it wouldn’t have been as good a book, and probably would have missed out on most of that acclaim. And hopefully people who dug these books will be interested in whatever I do next.

Are you currently working on the final book in the series? When is it due for publication?

I am indeed. There is a (very) rough draft. July of 2014.

You’re on Twitter (@BenHWinters) – how has your experience been of engaging with readers of your books? 

Oh, extremely positive! I’m not a huge Twitter/Facebook person, because I try to stay off the internet as much as I can when I’m actively writing, but I do love to hear from people, especially when they say stuff like how they want to marry Hank Palace, or they wonder what diagnosis he would get from a trained clinician. I’ve also done a lot of book clubs, via Skype, which is always delightful.

Do you have writing plans for after the series is finished?

Many, many, many. I am working on a new novel for young readers (I’ve written two previously: The Mystery of the Missing Everything, and The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, which was nominated for an Edgar in 2010), and researching a new police series set here in Indianapolis.

Who would you cite as your biggest influences as a writer? 

Hard to pick one. Charles Dickens? PD James? Philip K. Dick? There is a short story called The Drowned Giant by JG Ballard, that is the single most interesting thing I’ve ever read.

Any plans to come to the UK to promote your books? 

Not at present, but one never knows! I spent my junior year of college studying at Oxford, and had an extraordinary experience.

What are you reading at the moment? 

Ripley Under Water, by Patricia Highsmith. A history of the Amish. Two back issues of the Economist I missed when we were on vacation. Oh, and I’ve also recently finished a remarkable first novel called The Unknowns, by Gabriel Roth. Highly recommended.

Thank you to Ben for taking the time to answer my questions – you can find out more about him and Hank at

Countdown City – Ben H Winters

countdown cityTitle – Countdown City

Author – Ben H Winters

Published – 16 July 2013

Genre – Crime fiction / apocalyptic fiction / pre-apocalyptic crime fiction

When I reviewed The Last Policeman I said I couldn’t wait for the sequel, but there was no choice and I had to be patient. Fortunately the lovely people at Quirk Books sent me a review copy of Countdown City, so I guess the wait was kept to a minimum! The Last Policeman, first in the ‘Hank Palace’ trilogy, won the Edgar Award for the Best Paperback Original in May this year. Countdown City is the second volume in the series.

The book opens on the 18th July – just 77 days before a deadly asteroid is due to collide with Earth. It’s now a few months since Hank was forcibly retired from the police force, but that doesn’t stop him being approached by Martha, his ex-babysitter, to help find her missing husband.  In the current situation, though, people are going missing all the time – a consequence of the seemingly pre-determined end to life as we know it is that people are either dropping out to go on bucket-list adventures, committing suicide to avoid the inevitable or joining one of a number of fledgling religious sects. But Hank is still harbouring his sense of social responsibility and agrees to help search for Martha’s husband.

As the book unfolds we learn more about the impact (no pun intended) that the forthcoming apocalypse is having on everyday life. For me this is one of the highlights of Winters’ writing, the depiction of an utterly believable near-future. Imagine a US where private ownership of firearms is illegal! The police no longer investigate crimes, there’s limited power supply, virtually no internet, and a rumoured influx of refugees from the other side of the world. In terms of Hank’s investigation this means he will need to resort to some old-fashioned detective work.

There is a small cast of characters – an estranged sister, his friend Trish who remains a police officer, a couple of ex-colleagues and of course Harry his purposeful Bichon Frisé (and possibly the best trained dog ever).  Hank is a great character as the hero / detective. He’s mild-mannered and seems to be a truly good person, he treats the situations he finds himself in with a calm, almost impassive approach. Of course it’s always possible that he’s burying himself in the detail of the case in order to avoid the impending disaster!

Not only does Winters provide a great leading character and a well-drawn near-future, he also injects a wry sense of humour into the book which serves to lighten what is potentially a very dark situation, but as with all good crime fiction there are moments of tension too.

Countdown City is the middle of the trilogy and I’m sure that someone could pick this up and enjoy it without reading The Last Policeman – but why would you not start at the beginning?

A worthy sequel. I am now torn between wanting to read the next book as soon as possible and the realisation that it will be the final part of a trilogy that I don’t want to end.

Score – 4/5

The Last Policeman – Ben H Winters

Title – The Last Policeman

Author – Ben H Winters

Published – 2012

Genre – Crime fiction / apocalyptic fiction / pre-apocalyptic crime fiction

When you have a book blog it is inevitable that you will be approached by people and publishers who would like you to review their book. Sometimes it’s obviously something you’d like to try, sometimes it’s very obviously not, and occasionally there’s one that you think “maybe”. I’m not sure what it was about the offer from Quirk Books that persuaded me to read something that sounded, well, a little odd, but I am so pleased that I did.

In six months time life on Earth will change forever, asteroid Maia is certain to hit, with catastrophic consequences, the only question that remains is “where”.

Many people have chucked in their jobs and gone to fulfil their bucket list, or decided not to wait out the inevitable and have committed suicide and in Concord, New Hampshire the preferred method is hanging. But Detective Palace is convinced that a “hanger” in the toilet of a McDonald’s has more to it than meets the eye.

Detective (Henry) Hank Palace has been in his dream job for just a few months and has no intention of quitting just because the end of the world is nigh. In fact his family background gives him a good reason for wanting to be a police officer, and he is the exception to the rule as he tries to investigate what he believes to be murder.

Palace is such a likeable character – after all who couldn’t love a detective who says “holy moly” and has his own set of blue notebooks to write in! He’s doggedly determined to pursue the case despite the lack of interest from his colleagues and the best efforts of his weird sister to sidetrack him.

Although this is a police procedural, it feels more like he is a solo detective – the police department is falling apart as people make their pre-meteor choices and Palace is often on his own in trying to piece together the evidence, although sometimes this works in his favour. The plot kept me guessing, some bits I worked out and some bits I didn’t.

The pre-apocalyptic setting reminded me of “Age of Miracles” but where that felt as if it missed the mark in its depiction of the earth under some potentially devastating phenomenon, what Winters delivers feels completely realistic. This setting also gives the story a feel that perhaps harks back to some classic “hard-boiled” crime fiction. The changes to the way society operates in these times – the lack of law enforcement, introduction of martial law, tough penalties for what might seem like minor misdemeanors and the involvement of the army – all contribute to a feeling reminiscent of something set in 1920’s America.

I know this book won’t be for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The slightly sci-fi setting and the author’s style of writing won’t be to everyone’s taste. If I had any criticism of this book it’s that it is the first of a trilogy and leaves some frustrating loose ends for the next installment. I can’t wait!

Score – 5/5