Crime In The City
12:58 am
Thu August 22, 2013

Awaiting The Apocalypse In The Quiet Town Of Concord

Originally published on Thu August 22, 2013 10:43 am

No place seems safe these days from someone's terrifying, post-apocalyptic imaginings. Los Angeles is wrecked in the movie Elysium, the South is zombie-ridden in TV's The Walking Dead, and now— thanks to writer Ben Winters — even the quiet streets of Concord are at risk of annihilation.

But it's hard to imagine anywhere less apocalyptic than the Corner View Restaurant in Concord, N.H. The cheerful diner is full of morning sunshine, happy families and yummy pancakes; but in Winters' Concord mystery novels, which so far include The Last Policeman and Countdown City, the earth is about to be hit by a giant asteroid. That means this little diner on South Street, like the rest of the planet, is headed towards destruction.

But during the last few months before the end of the world, Corner View keeps serving. It's a recurring location in Winter's books. "It's the place where Detective Palace goes with his buddies to hang out," the writer explains.

Hank Palace, the detective at the heart of the series, is well over 6 feet tall, only 27 years old and completely obsessive. He's one of the very few detectives remaining in Concord since the world learned about the asteroid. Other cops have deserted their posts to party in places like New Orleans during the final months before the earth is destroyed.

Palace comes to this diner for coffee — or, at least, he used to.

"You can't get a cup of coffee anymore because of the slow disintegration of infrastructure and agriculture and international shipping, with everybody leaving their jobs and the world falling apart," Winters says.

Winters refashions noir tropes to suit his pre-apocalyptic stories. For example, now that the world is about to come to an end, nearly everyone's started smoking. "The cigarettes, the mysterious women, the cops, late night at the diner," Winters says with some relish. It's all there.

He's purposefully playing with noir archetypes: His hero, for instance, is the man who cares when everyone else has given up.

"That is a familiar type for mystery fiction," Winters explains. "But I was like, 'But wait, what if really nobody else cares and what if there's a really good reason for that? You know, what if no one else on the Concord police force cares because the world is ending?' "

Cops In A Quiet Town

So, how do actual Concord police officers feel about how they're portrayed in Winters' books? When the author visits the local station, the cops are mad — mad that he forgot to bring them signed copies.

Crammed into a tiny blue interrogation room, two of Concord's finest, Lt. John Thomas and Officer Ryan Howe, consider the notion of policing a world on the brink of annihilation. Howe is sober: "You imagine the chaos that would be. You'd have people that leave to be home with their families, but I bet you'd have people stay."

In the books, the economy craters — first slowly, then very fast. Police work becomes about maintaining order, not solving crimes. Missing people are often assumed to be off pursuing a last-minute bucket list, and those who stay and try to hew to some semblance of normal society tend to be librarians, hospital personnel and law enforcement officers.

Howe and Thomas aren't sure how they'd respond to the end of the world. "We were talking about it upstairs," Howe says. "Jeez, what would we do? Jeez, I don't know. ... I might be home with my family, if you had 70 days left."

It's a pretty far-out question, especially in a town that rarely sees even one murder in any given year. That's not to say Concord hasn't had a brush with sensational crime. "There were these Toothbrush Twins that escaped from Alcatraz," Howe says.

Actually, it was an Iowa prison: In 1945, two desperadoes busted out of a Council Bluffs jail using toothbrushes and embarked on a cross-country crime spree.

"They were both captured here in Concord, N.H." Howe says.

'Why Concord?'

This town's anodyne peacefulness is why it appealed to Winters as a setting. He doesn't live here, but instead came to appreciate Concord through his brother, Andrew Winters, who moved here 13 years ago to work as a public defender. His law office near downtown comes with a not-so-sophisticated alarm system: just a bell over the door.

Winters' brother verifies Concord's status as a non-hotbed of crime.

"Concord is, by all objective standards, not a particularly exciting town," he says. "It's a family-oriented town."

Andrew Winters says his Concord friends are pleased and mystified that his brother set his series here. "The typical reaction ... of people in Concord," he explains, "is, 'Why Concord?' "

The author says it's because Concord is both specific and universal. It's an unpretentious New England town that in some ways could be almost anywhere. There's wealth, there's poverty, there's a middle class and it doesn't feel fake.

Winters explains that there are a lot of New England towns, particularly on the coast, that have embraced a sort of preciousness — they have a lot of candle and taffy shops.

"Concord doesn't feel like that at all to me," he says. "It feels very much like an active place, which probably has to do with the state government being here."

The state is also known for a certain set of politics. "The libertarian thing is very real," Winters says. "The 'Live Free or Die' thing is very real. There [are] literally people who move here for the purpose of taking over the government and doing away with it."

And that resonates with a pre-post-apocalyptic story about the slow, stripping away of government, regulations and the institutions that hold society together.

An End-Of-The-World Playlist

Downtown, at the intersection of State and Blake, you can see five or six solid blocks of respectable red brick buildings, well-kept and occupied. There's the hardware store that, in one of the books, jacks up prices every week for increasingly rare basics like lightbulbs and shovels. There's an office building that, in Winter's vision, gets covered in graffiti reading "Lies, it's all lies."

Then there's the dive bar hidden in an alley. In the book The Last Policeman, this is where Palace comes to drink when no one else believes a seeming suicide is actually a murder. After all, suicides have become a depressing norm.

"And on the jukebox someone has ironically put on the R.E.M. song 'It's The End Of The World As We Know It,' and the Tom Waits song 'Earth Died Screaming' and the Elvis Costello song 'Waiting For The End Of The World,' " Winters says. "I have this sort of moment where they're sitting at the bar and he's like, 'Everyone is taking this like a big joke.' "

Palace is clinging to justice so desperately that in the months and weeks before everyone dies, he's still tracking down missing people and investigating homicides.

"There's something about him ... [and] his rigorous, unironic belief in law and order, and his rigorous, unironic mustache, and his rigorous, unironic belief in making promises and keeping them," Winters explains. "It's a very old way of looking at the world."

It's a sort of faith that heroes of detective novels fundamentally share in every city, setting and era. They're the ones who make you think, even as the Earth's demise looms, that hope for humanity is not entirely lost.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

These days, no place seems safe from post-apocalyptic imagination. There's the devastated 22nd century Los Angeles in the movie "Elysium." There's the zombie-ridden rural South in TV's "The Walking Dead." And now Concord, New Hampshire, that's where writer Ben Winters set a series of mystery novels with the following twist: The Earth is about to be struck by a giant asteroid.

Winters met NPR's Neda Ulaby in Concord for this installment of our summer series, Crime in the City.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It's hard to imagine someplace less apocalyptic than this cheerful diner - all morning sunshine, happy families and yummy pancakes.

BEN WINTERS: The pancakes are amazing.

ULABY: Writer Ben Winters says the Corner View Restaurant on South Street is a classic. So he picked it as a recurring location in his series. So far, it includes the critically acclaimed books "The Last Policeman" and "Countdown City."

WINTERS: It's the place where Detective Palace goes with his buddies to hang out.

ULABY: Hank Palace is well over six feet tall, only 27 years old and completely obsessive. He's one of the very few detectives remaining in Concord since people learned about the asteroid. Other cops have deserted their posts to party in New Orleans for the final few months before the Earth is destroyed. Palace comes here for coffee. Or, at least he used to.

WINTERS: You can't really get a cup of coffee anymore because of the slow disintegration of infrastructure and agriculture and international shipping, with everybody leaving their jobs and the world falling apart.

ULABY: Winters refashions noir tropes to suit his stories. For example, now that the world is about to come to an end, nearly everyone's started smoking.

WINTERS: The cigarettes, the mysterious women, the cops, at late night at the diner.

ULABY: We leave the diner and hop in the car, where Winters adds he's also playing with noir archetypes, like his hero, the man who cares when everyone else has given up.

WINTERS: That is a familiar type for mystery fiction. But I was like, but wait. What if really nobody else cares and what if there's a really good reason for that? You know, what if no one else on the Concord Police Force cares because the world is ending?

ULABY: To learn how actual Concord police officers feel about how they're represented in Winters' books, we visited the station. They were mad, mad he had forgotten to bring them signed copies.

LIEUTENANT JOHN THOMAS, CONCORD POLICE DEPARTMENT: Thought I was going to get one.

WINTERS: I'll send one.

DEPARTMENT: All right.

WINTERS: I sent one to Joe a long time ago.

DEPARTMENT: Oh, you did?

WINTERS: Yeah. Yeah.

DEPARTMENT: Didn't send one to me.

ULABY: We're crammed in a tiny blue interrogation room, with two of Concord's finest: Lieutenant John Thomas, and Officer Ryan Howe who was sober about the notion of policing in a world on the brink of annihilation.

OFFICER RYAN HOWE: You imagine the chaos that would be. You'd have people that leave to be home with their families, but I bet you'd have people stay.

ULABY: In the books, the economy craters first slowly, then very fast. Police work becomes about maintaining order, not solving crimes. Missing people are often assumed to be off pursuing a last minute bucket list. Those who stay and try to hew to some semblance of normal society tend to be librarians, hospital personal and law enforcement officers.

DEPARTMENT: Yeah, we were talking about it upstairs. And jeez, what would we do at the end of the world? Oh, jeez. I don't know. Some would go home. Some would - I might be home with my family if you only had 70 days left or 77. You know?

ULABY: Granted, it's a pretty far out question, especially in a town that rarely sees even one murder in any given year. That's not to say Concord's escaped a brush with sensational crime.

DEPARTMENT: There were these toothbrush twins that escaped from Alcazar. You heard about this?

ULABY: No.

Turns out it wasn't Alcatraz but an Iowa prison in 1945, when two desperados busted out using toothbrushes and embarked on a cross country crime spree.

DEPARTMENT: But they were both captured here in Concord, New Hampshire.

ULABY: It's this town's very anodyne peacefulness that appealed to Winters as a setting. He doesn't live here. He came to appreciate Concord through his brother. Andrew Winters moved here 13 years ago to work as public defender. His law office near downtown comes with a sophisticated alarm system.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DOOR BELL)

ULABY: Just a bell over the door. We asked Winters' brother to verify Concord's status as a non hotbed for crime.

ANDREW WINTERS: Concord is, by all objective standards, not a particularly exciting town. I mean it's a family oriented town.

ULABY: Andrew Winters says his Concord friends are pleased and mystified that his brother set his series here.

WINTERS: The typical reaction is Concord - for people in Concord, like, why concord.

ULABY: Why, says Ben Winters, is because Concord is specific and universal. It's an unpretentious New England town that in some ways could be almost anywhere. There's wealth, there's poverty, there's a middle-class - it doesn't feel fake.

WINTERS: If you go, there are there are other places in New England - particularly some of the more coastal towns - that have embraced a sort of preciousness. It's a lot of candle shops and they're selling taffy. Concord doesn't feel like that at all to me. It feels very much like an active place, which it probably has to do with the state government being here.

ULABY: And the state is associated with a certain set of politics.

WINTERS: The libertarian thing is very real. The live free or die thing is very real. Like, there's literally people who move here for the purpose of taking over the government and doing away with it.

ULABY: Winters says that resonates with a pre-post apocalyptic series about the slow stripping away of government, regulations, and the institutions that hold society together

WINTERS: And I set it in a state where there are a lot of people who are like great, you know, let's do it. Like, that would be all right. I mean not the end of the world, but certainly the end of the federal government. You know, it's funny.

ULABY: We're downtown, on the intersection of State and Blake. You can see five or six solid blocks of respectable red brick buildings, well kept and occupied. There's the hardware store that, in the book, jacks up prices every week for increasingly rare basics like light bulbs and shovels. And there's the office building that, in Winter's vision, gets covered in graffiti reading: lies, it's all lies.

WINTERS: It's really cool to walk around and look at all the stuff again. Oh yeah, I used that, I used that, I used that. You know?

ULABY: And then there's the dive bar hidden in an alley where Detective Hank Palace drinks in the book "The Last Policeman," when no one else believes a seeming suicide is a murder, because suicides have become a depressing norm.

WINTERS: And on the jukebox someone has ironically put on the REM song "It's The End of the World As We Know It," and the Tom Waits song the "Earth Died Screaming," and the Elvis Costello song "Waiting For The End Of The World."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAITING FOR THE END OF THE WORLD")

ELVIS COSTELLO: (Singing) Dear Lord, I sincerely hope you're coming 'cause you really started something.

WINTERS: And I have this moment where he's sitting in the bar and he's like: Everyone is taking this like a big joke.

ULABY: And why is Detective Hank Palace clinging so seriously to justice, that he'll track down missing people and solve homicides in the months and weeks before everyone is about to die?

WINTERS: There's something about him that in his sort of rigorous, un-ironic belief in law and order, and his rigorous un-ironic mustache, and rigorous un-ironic belief in making promises and keeping them, it's a very old way of looking at the world.

ULABY: And one that heroes of detective novels fundamentally share - in every city, in every setting, in every era. They're the ones who make you think, even in the event of the Earth's coming to an end, the hope for humanity is not entirely lost.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: The latest from Crime in the City on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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