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Ben Winters and the end-times detective novel



I catch up with Ben Winters at downtown's Mo'Joe Coffeehouse just as he's sitting down with an enormous cup of black coffee. Reality meets fiction: If you've read his just-published Countdown City - the second book in his still-in-process Last Policeman trilogy - then you know that coffee becomes almost a running joke in this book (as well as a minor plot device).

In the world of the trilogy, coffee has vanished from cupboards and coffeehouses because of the collapse of international trade and infrastructure. This collapse is the result of some very bad news: An asteroid is slated to slam into Southeast Asia in a couple of months with the potential to destroy all human life on earth. Most people wouldn't keep cool, hearing this kind of news. And Ben Winters' people, no different from the rest of us, end up panicking and destroying stuff.

While the lack of coffee is upsetting to Henry Palace, the protagonist of the series, it's only a minor manifestation of the chaos at hand. Palace doesn't have a job anymore, thanks to the U.S. Justice Department taking over the Concord, N.H., Police Department. In Countdown City he conducts a missing-persons investigation under nobody's auspices but his own.

"I was looking for a way to do a detective novel in a nontraditional big way," says Winters, who looks much younger than his 37 years, with wavy black hair and slim build. "Somehow I took this jump to the question: What if it was the end of the world? And you have this character Palace. In a way he's an archetype for the detective fiction genre. So, I thought, what if he's a cop who cares when no one else does in a time and place where it makes good sense not to care? So the question is A, why does he care? And B, what are the ways in which the world as we know it has changed so it is much harder for him to solve his crimes? So that was the impetus for the series."

Winters teaches creative writing classes at Butler University, and he's getting a kick out of reading the fiction of his Butler-connected cohorts - Dan Barden and Allison Lynn, among them. His books can be a little quirkier than theirs. Take, for example, his Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, published in 2009 by the appropriately titled Quirk Books. This Jane Austen send-up can be described basically as a mashing together the classic text with Winters' more lurid writing involving giant lobsters and two-headed sea serpents. This was followed up by other works, including Android Karenina (2010), Bedbugs (2011), as well as two books for middle-grade readers published by HarperCollins.

The Last Policeman, the first book in the eponymous trilogy, came out in 2012. (It won an Edgar Award this year.) Winters and his family moved to Indianapolis from Cambridge, Mass., in the same year. His wife teaches at IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law on the IUPUI campus. They have three children.

And Winters has found Indianapolis very receptive to his work. On July 16, Big Hat Books held a launch party for his promotional tour for Countdown City. And he will appear on an authors panel at the Ann Katz Festival of Books this fall with Michael Dahlie and Allison Lynn.


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