For the past few years Ben H. Winters has been writing detective novels set at the end of the world. His protagonist is Henry Palace, a member of the police force in Concord, NH, a man who is working to solve mysteries while a massive asteroid known as Maya heads toward Earth. As Maya’s impact grows closer society breaks further and further down, and still, Palace carries on. The third novel in this series has just been released, and it’s called World of Trouble. I spoke with Mr. Winters last week about his third and final book.
This is a very ominous name for the third and final book in this trilogy.
Thank you very much. We wanted to go big.
What’s interesting is that at the end of the second book Palace finds himself in a pretty good place to ride out these final two weeks on Earth and he ventures out into the world anyway, continuing to take the hard road even if he doesn’t have to.
Well the man is what he is. He finds himself presented with one last case and, Palace being Palace, he doesn’t feel that he can let things get to the end without finding the answer to the case. Without giving too much away, it’s a case he can’t turn his back on. So he heads off on what he presumes will be his final case because the asteroid is due to hit in fourteen days. It’s a tight shave.
The advantage that he had even as society was deteriorating and the power grid was breaking down was that he was in his hometown. He knew the town, knew where things were and that gave him an advantage in solving the mysteries. He doesn’t have that in this third book, so is he up to the task of solving the mystery?
Well you’re going to have to find that out by reading the book, Brady. He has to venture forth from New Hampshire to the Midwest. My vision with this series was let’s take this young, earnest policeman and push him further and further, let’s make the situation more and more difficult for him. It’s funny because from my perspective as a mystery writer the fact that the world is ending allows me an infinite number of obstacles to throw in the way of my protagonist. What we want from a great mystery or thriller novel is a big question that someone is trying to answer and things keep getting harder for them to get these answers. So here I’ve got this guy who’s trying to solve crimes and life just keeps getting harder and harder. His tools keep getting taken away from him. As you say, now here he is with the biggest mystery of his life and the clock is ticking and he has to follow these clues into a world he doesn’t know at all.
Palace’s sister, Nico, has been a big part of each of the books. They have, shall we say, a complicated relationship. It’s not that they don’t love each other but their lives tend to get in each other’s way. Yet, they both gravitate toward each other in this book and the previous two.
Far be it for me to suggest that people’s relationships with their family members are often complicated. But, I think they are. Our families are the first people that we love and the people from whom we learn to have relationships. I think this was especially true for Hank and his sister given their very difficult upbringing. They need each other, but they drive each other crazy. I hope I’ve created an interesting dynamic where we have this one guy who is very serious minded and very dedicated, almost to the point where people think he’s crazy. Then there’s his sister, who is much more wide-eyed and much more idealistic. She’s cynical in her way but also very cynical to authority, whereas Palace is generally on the side of authority. I hope that the two of them playing off each other has been at the center of what has made these books more than just fun mystery novels but also books with some weight and some seriousness.
The theme running throughout all three books has been what matters most or what matters at all when faced with impending death. With literally days left to go here, I find myself surprised with some of the ramifications. In other scenarios it’s easy to convince yourself “Palace may act morally because he wants to be close to his family, or thought highly of when he’s gone.” But in two weeks everyone is going to be gone. There’s no history or posterity for him to be represented in.
Look at in a different way. For Palace, if Justice is a real thing, if he really believes in this, then it has to be real forever. It has to be real if he’s built his whole career and his life around this, and he has. It has to be real no matter what. If you look at our country, the whole point of equality under the law is that if the rules are true for one person in one situation than they’re true for someone else in some other situation. That’s why people get upset at people being unfairly punished. If these principles mean something, then they mean it permanently, or they should. That was one of the things I was interested in showcasing in this book. Is it true that justice is a real thing that matters? If it’s true, then everybody should care about it no matter if an asteroid is coming tomorrow or a hundred years from now. It should always matter.
With a series with a premise like this, you have a difficult challenge when you come to the end of the series. You either come to a bitter end or you have to find a way to make the ending happier, but it may undercut the premise of the works. How hard of a needle was that to thread as you put this final book together?
It wasn’t hard because I knew from the beginning how the books were going to end. There were a lot of things over the course of the trilogy that I wish I had planned out better, but I always knew how it was going to play out. I wasn’t worried about it so I could therefore ignore any feedback or exhortations from my family, publisher or fans.
This series started in Concord which (Spoiler Alert) didn’t fair terribly well in the end. I hear you’re planning another book. Can you first tell us where it’s going to take place and should that place be worried?
I love that. I love the idea that whenever I set my sights on a new location for a book everyone trembles in fear, ‘What will Ben Winters do to us?’ Yes, I’m working on a new book set here in Indianapolis, where I live now. My brother lives in Concord, so that’s how Concord became to be the setting. I tend, when I write, to do a lot of research on the ground and I like to speak with people. Now that I live in Indy I’m doing a lot of that here. They needn’t be worried. It’s all fiction of course.
But you never know?
Right, you never know.