In Jewish tradition, there are 36 righteous people scattered throughout the world who instinctively behave in a humanitarian manner, inspiring people around them to do likewise. The catch is, they don’t know they are one of the 36 and don’t believe themselves to be particularly righteous or good. It’s thought that humanity itself is in danger if anything fatal happens to a majority of individuals within the group. So when an Italian policeman, Tommaso di Barbara, starts noticing a pattern of deaths, he starts to investigate. Each deceased had a tattoo-like marking on his or her back with a number starting at one and working up to the thirties. The causes of death seem to be from a burning sensation followed by internal bleeding, thought to be from poisoning. However, his investigation relies both on inter-country cooperation and the deaths being recorded thoroughly. Just as his investigations reveal a pattern which suggests the next death will occur in Venice, where he is based, or Copenhagen, his superiors accuse him of wasting resources and he’s told to take a holiday to look after his terminally ill mother.
Before his suspension, however, he manages to get a message out through Interpol to Copenhagen. Dismissively, Chief of Police Sommerstadt passes the information to Neils Bentzon, a police hostage negotiator, suggesting he warns a few key people and drops the matter. Neils, however, decides to ask Tommaso di Barbara for a copy of the information he has. The information is incomplete.
One of the people Neils is to warn is Gustav Lund, where he meets Hannah Lund, his ex-wife still mourning the death of their only child. Hannah is a theoretical mathematician and welcome to the idea of working out where and when the next deaths will occur. She calculates the pattern from the first to the 34th. One of the deaths they are missing information for theoretically took place in Cape Town, where Niels’s architect wife is currently working on a project. He gets her to check the theory out. There was a death of a lawyer in one of Cape Town’s shanty towns. The lawyer was trying to save a child’s life. Neils and Hannah take this as proof. As the Venice policemen had calculated, the next and last two deaths will take place in Venice and Copenhagen. Hannah’s theory suggests Venice train station and Copenhagen’s National Hospital.
As to who or what is causing the deaths, their investigation suggests the murderer is not human but down to some external force triggering the reaction in the deaths they know about. Can Neils and Tommaso find out who the final two victims will be and warn them? If warned, can the final two victims find a way of surviving?
Despite the complexity of the plot, the story moves quickly. Hannah is a useful character because not only does she have to explain the theory to Neils but also to Tommaso. As she doesn’t speak Italian and he doesn’t speak Dutch, they communicate in French so Hannah has to repeat key pointers, which keeps the reader on board. The weakness is the credibility of Hannah’s involvement. It may have been lost in the translation, but Neils seems happy to share confidential police files with her without warning her that these are confidential or trying to give her the bare minimum first and then further access once it becomes apparent she can’t develop a theory without more information. Not only does she have unprecedented access to the information supplied by Tommaso, she is able to keep the paperwork at home and transfer it to the university without bothering to keep it locked or secure.
The characterisation is good. Tommaso’s put-upon weariness, stemming from working full-time, trying to care for his mother and investigate these mysterious deaths on the side, seeps through the pages. Hannah is still grieving for her son, but working out the system behind these deaths gives her a sense of purpose again. Neils moves from just doing his job to full involvement with the investigation. On the surface, he seems sceptical and someone you’d label as ‘not a team player’ but he accepts people as he finds them and has a strong desire to see justice done. He acknowledges that good and evil are on a spectrum and one person is rarely either completely good or completely evil.
“The Last Good Man” has an intriguing premise, credible characters and the race to find the final two victims keeps the plot moving and readers turning the pages. It’s unusual to have a why-and-what-did-it rather than a whodunit. The subplots, including a terrorism attempt, give the novel a contemporary, up to date feel.
By Emma Lee