This reading group guide for The Last Good Man includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author A.J. Kazinski. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In Jewish scripture there is a legend: there are thirty-six righteous people on earth. When humanitarians the world over begin turning up dead—all with the same tattoo-like mark on their backs—an enterprising Italian policeman named Tommaso di Barbara link the deaths. In Copenhagen, Barbara’s Interpol alert lands on the desk of veteran detective Niels Bentzon. His task: find the “good people” of Denmark and warn them of the threat. But Bentzon is a man who is trained to see the worst in humanity, not the good. One by one, people are crossed off his list, as he sees through their upright façade and learns of their secrets and wrongdoings. Just as Bentzon is ready to give up, he meets Hannah Lund, a brilliant astrophysicist. With Hannah’s help, Bentzon begins to piece together the puzzle of these far-flung deaths. It is, they realize, a perfect plan of murder. There have been thirty-four deaths. According to the pattern, Bentzon and Hannah can predict the time and place of the final two murders. The deaths will occur in Venice and Copenhagen. And the time is now.
Topics & Question for Discussion
1. In the world of The Last Good Man, being “good” doesn’t necessarily mean doing good works or being charitable. In your opinion, how does The Last Good Man define “goodness”? Do you agree with this interpretation? Why or why not?
2. The novel begins with short, intense chapters from a wide variety of characters’ viewpoints. How does this structure contribute to the book’s suspense level? How did these chapters impact the rest of the narrative?
3. The events of the book take place during the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen. How does this backdrop affect your interpretation of The Last Good Man? Can you draw any parallels between the conference and the quest to solve the murders?
4. The Last Good Man begins with a description of the near-death experience experiment created by Agnes Davidsen. How does the concept of the near-death experience relate to the phenomenon that Niels and Hannah are investigating?
5. Abdul Hati is a Muslim terrorist who serves as a type of “red herring” or distraction for the first half of the book. What did his character traits convey to you about the nature of good and evil as explored in The Last Good Man?
6. Severin Rosenberg says, “Situations may arise when doing wrong is the right thing to do.” Do you agree? How does this quote apply to the outcome of the book? How does it apply to your own life?
7. Niels’ phobia prevents him leaving Copenhagen and strains his relationship with his wife. But are there positive aspects of his illness? In what ways does he compensate? Has his weakness in some ways made him stronger? If you had to stay in one place for the remainder of your life, where would it be?
8. The myth of the thirty-six righteous people comes from Jewish scripture, but the pattern of how the thirty-six die is based on the atomic structure of the element Krypton. How do religion and science interact in The Last Good Man? Where do they intersect? In your opinion, can you prove faith?
9. What qualities do Tommaso and Niels have in common? Do you think “good” people tend to be more troubled than average people? Explain your answer.
10. Hannah warns: “No matter what you do, Niels, no matter what, you’re going to end up at the National Hospital six days from now.” Are Niels and Hannah mere pawns in this grander scheme? Where does the idea of free will fit in? In your opinion, how much of their fate—and ours—is predetermined?
11. The Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac is integral to the book’s conclusion. How does the idea of sacrifice impact your own life? How does it influence the outcome of the novel?
12. Do you think Niels becomes “bad” or unrighteous when he shoots Hannah? How does Niels and Hannah’s relationship complicate his position as a “good” person?
13. What did you make of the book’s conclusion? Who is the villain of the story? Do any questions remain unanswered?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. As Niels found out in his investigation, those who do charitable works aren’t necessarily good people. But it certainly couldn’t hurt! Pick the charitable organization of your choice and volunteer with your book group. To get started, visit www.volunteermatch.org.
2. Although Niels has a phobia of leaving Copenhagen, he communicates with a variety of people across the globe via the Internet. Visit book-related websites, such as www.Goodreads.com or www.Librarything.com and start an online discussion of The Last Good Man. How does this conversation differ from your in-person, book club discussion?
3. The authors of The Last Good Man both have backgrounds in film. Discuss with your book club who you would cast in the movie adaptation of the book.
A Conversation with A. J. Kazinski (AKA Anders Rønnow Klarlund and Jacob Weinreich) The name A.J. Kazinski is a pseudonym for your collaborative writing efforts. How did you two work together? Did you divide the writing by characters or locations, or by some other means?
Four years ago we met and began talking about an idea for a movie. Anders is a well-known film director in Denmark, and Jacob is a screenwriter. We worked on that for a while, but in the end we decided to write The Last Good Man as a novel. We divided the writing by chapters in the first draft, but now after lots of rewrites it’s impossible for us to say who wrote what in the first place. It became a seamless whole.
The novel deals with scientific and religious theory, and is set in various locations throughout the world. What research did you conduct in order to write the book?
We did a lot of research. In fact everything in the book is researched to the smallest detail. We have been sailing through the canals of Venice with the Italian police and have met with so many people—astrophysics, policemen, mathematicians, doctors, etc.—to get all the details right.
How did you choose the Jewish legend of the thirty-six “good” people as the basis of this novel?
We almost stumbled into it and were immediately fascinated. Thirty-six righteous men, thirty-six good people. For us it was the perfect myth-based setup for a story dealing with the complex subject of “goodness.” Most crime writing, of course, deals with evil. Chasing bad men. We wanted to turn things upside down—and make it just as exiting. Or even more exciting.
You both have backgrounds in the film world. Do you think there are particularly cinematic elements about The Last Good Man?
Probably. Both of us know about dramatic structure, turning points, dramaturgy, etc. And most important: About characters and the importance of the story moving forward. And right now there is a lot of buzz about The Last Good Man being turned into a film.
When police officer Lisa Larsson appears, you write, “That would be a good name for a porn actress, thought Niels when she introduced herself. Or a Swedish detective novelist.” Is that a nod to the phenomenon that is Scandinavian crime fiction? Do you think The Last Good Man fits easily in the genre of “Scandinavian thrillers”?
Yes and no. The Last Good Man is of course a “Scandinavian thriller.” Lots of snow. Lots of dark streets in a freezing-cold Copenhagen. But The Last Good Man is also something else, we hope. For us it’s not enough just to find the killer. The story has to be a little bit more complex to be interesting. But of course: It’s a crime novel; it’s supposed to be a page-turner.
The Last Good Man is being published in countries around the world. What do you think makes the appeal of the book so universal?
What is a good man? Is there more between heaven and Earth than we know of? Questions like that are, of course, universal. And the whole premise of a single cop trying to save us all from an unknown murderer with a master plan of biblical dimensions—that thrills everybody, whether you’re from Denmark, Brazil, USA, France, Germany, Korea, Russia, Japan, and so on.
In the context of the book, what does “goodness” ultimately mean, and what ideas about morality do you hope readers will take away from The Last Good Man?
We cannot define “goodness.” Who can? But The Last Good Man deals with the subject on several levels. Ultimately we want our readers to think about their own definition. And, another theme of the book, think about what you could call “the arrogance of mankind.” Do we in the western world still have the ability to believe in anything larger than ourselves? Are we still able to listen? Or do we consider ourselves “small gods” who already know everything? In short: What if we don’t know as much as we think?
What has the response from readers been like? Have you heard any feedback to The Last Good Man that’s surprised you?
It has been absolutely overwhelming. The Last Good Man is published in so many countries, and everywhere we get the feeling that the book really resonates with readers. It seems to us that readers all over the world can relate to both the thrills and the themes of the book. That’s a fantastic thing for a writer. And we are very grateful about that.
We hear you’re at work on a sequel. What’s next for Niels Bentzon? The sequel will be called The Sleep and the Death. It’s a thriller dealing with near-death experiences. Very dark and scary. And it will make you cry.