Everybody loves to hate a dirty cop. The idea of the corrupt or lazy policeman is a very old trope indeed—2,000 years ago Seneca was complaining about dishonest tribunes and cohortes urbanae. Edgar Allan Poe and Fergus Hume both have choice words for indolent and/or stupid policemen. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was not always impressed by the dedication and reliability of the Metropolitan Police.
Don Winslow’s summer hit The Force has focused renewed interest in a genre that I love. If you’re interested in stories of sleazy, venial, even murderous policemen (and, occasionally women) then you’re in luck as I’ve compiled a little primer for you of my top ten dirty cop novels.
Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
The weirdest novel on my list but also one of the best. Set in a dystopian Orange County (as opposed to a utopian Orange County?). Bob Arctor is an undercover police agent who is sent to spy on himself. Paranoia ensues.
Maxine Paetro and James Patterson, 11th Hour
When millionaire Chaz Smith is killed the very pregnant Detective Lindsay Boxer discovers that the murder weapon is linked to the killings of four San Francisco mobsters and that it was taken from her own department’s evidence locker. Boxer puts her life and reputation on the line to solve the case.
David Peace, 1977
Exhausted policeman Bob Fraser and burnt-out journalist Jack Whitehead investigate the Yorkshire Ripper case and discover that the West Yorkshire Police Force is a cesspit of corruption, bigotry, languor, racism, darkness and incompetence. Not exactly a lighthearted cozy from the incomparable Mr. Peace.
Unity Dow, Heavens May Fall
Naledi Chaba is a feisty lawyer at a non-governmental organization that assists children in need in Mochudi, Botswana. She discovers institutional corruption on a societal scale when a young girl’s claims of rape are not taken seriously by the police or the judiciary.
Dennis Lehane, The Given Day
In Lehane’s classic about the famous 1919 Boston Police Strike, Aiden “Danny” Coughlin is an Irish patrolman reluctantly sucked into battling the brass of his own department by the hard times of his brother officers. Luther Laurence is a black man on the run in a city where racism is as rife as any city in the American South. Bomb-toting anarchists, destitute immigrants, corrupt ward bosses and cops on the take clash in the climactic revolutionary year of 1919.
George Pelecanos, Hard Revolution
Derek Strange, a black rookie police officer, joins the Washington DC police department in 1968 just as the city is about to plunge into chaos and revolt following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Racism, the old boy network, and corruption are Strange’s unenviable lot on his first weeks and months on the job. For another look at race and the terrible events of 1968 from a master of the PI novel (not quite in my purview here) try the always brilliant Walter Mosley’s Charcoal Joe.
James Ellroy, The Cold Six Thousand
This was a tough call. If you’re only going to have one James Ellroy on your list how can you not pick LA Confidential, especially with the evil Dudley Smith lurking like a bloated spider at the center of a web of depravity? Well, for me The Cold Six Thousand is LA Confidential taken to the next level. The whole society is dirty here. From the President and the FBI director on down to CIA goon Pete Bondurant to beleaguered ex G-man trying to do the right thing Ward Littell to Wayne Tedrow, Jr. a Vegas cop looking for the pimp who raped and murdered his wife. The Cold Six Thousand is America as a vile, unreasoning irredeemable dystopia. What’s not to love?
Joseph Wambaugh, The Choirboys
Everybody’s already read The Choirboys, haven’t they? This is the classic novel of police corruption from the man who, with Ed McBain, virtually reinvented the modern American cop novel. Several young officers of the Wilshire Division learn quickly how things are really done in the endemically crooked Los Angeles Police Department.
Don Winslow, The Force
What Wambaugh and Ellroy do for the LAPD Winslow does for the NYPD. There have been many great dirty New York cop novels but Winslow has really done something special here by embracing police corruption as the raison d’etre of an entire segment of the force. Detective Sergeant Dennis Malone leads the Manhattan North Special Task Force, an elite unit established to combat drug gangs, organized crime and gun running. Years of undercover work and dirty deals have compromised Malone and his cohorts so that by the beginning of the book they’re a well oiled thieving machine. Unfortunately for Malone the feds and Internal Affairs are looking for a sacrificial lamb to appease the punters and from then on the book is cop versus cop, cop versus DA, cop versus FBI—pretty much everything except cop versus criminals. A masterpiece of the genre.
Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me
The original and best sociopathic, sadistic, sexually depraved, serial killing, scary dirty cop. Lou Ford is an intelligent, cynical, chronically bored small town Texas deputy sheriff who uses his power to murder and pervert justice with impunity in post-war Jim Crow Texas. This and Pop. 1280 (about another corrupt Texas sheriff) are the high watermarks of Thompson’s under appreciated genius.