Suspenseful and perfectly crafted.Victoria Selman
Remember when the police used to be the good guys? From virtuous sheriffs in Westerns willing to lay down their life in a last-gasp shoot-out, to honest and methodical detectives such as Inspector French in Freeman Wills Crofts’ classic series of books, these were the people we depended on to keep us safe. But the golden age of honour and valour and high morals in law enforcement is long gone; in the gritty real world, the police are as likely to be as troubled, conflicted and perhaps even criminal as everyone else. Whether it’s victim-shaming WhatsApp groups or accusations of sexual misconduct, or kidnapping and murdering innocent women walking alone at night, we are truly living in the age of the bad cop. And while you may not want to meet any of them in a dark alley, on the pages of a book they can be very entertaining. Here are some of my favourites.

Ian Rankin – Inspector Rebus books

In many ways, John Rebus is your typical maverick detective. Hard drinker? Tick. Failed family man? Tick. Willing to walk up to the thin blue line of acceptable policing, wave at the hardened criminals on the other side, then grind said line into the dirt in the process doing whatever needs to be done to bring them to justice? Capital tick. But it’s not just Rebus’s ambiguous morality which gets him a place on this list. In Black and Blue, the eighth Rebus novel, it’s the Aberdeen police themselves who attempt to block enquires; the more recent A Heart Full of Headstones is full of backhanders and bent bobbies. In Rankin’s books, policing and corruption go hand in hand.

Guy Lawson & William Oldham – The Brotherhoods

Stephen Caracappa and Louis Eppolito were undercover officers embedded in the Mafia, but along the way they changed from law enforcers to bona fide members of the criminal establishment. What starts with feeding information to the mob soon turns into carrying out contract killings on their behalf. This is a fascinating account of how good people turn bad, and the power of money to make them sell the things they hold dear – their badge, their reputation, and ultimately their freedom.

Joseph Wambaugh – The Choirboys

Former LAPD officer Wambaugh penned The Choirboys in 1975, long before the grimy side of policing became so commonplace. It tells the story of a group of patrol officers, the ‘choirboys’, who meet at the end of a shift to drink and joke and tell anecdotes. Sound like a pleasant way for them to unwind? It would be if their stories weren’t packed with bribes, violence and a penchant for filing false reports. Few books have shone such a light on the way officers justify breaking the rules as this one.

The golden age of honour and valour and high morals in law enforcement is long gone; in the gritty real world, the police are as likely to be as troubled, conflicted and perhaps even criminal as everyone else.”

Simon Kernick – Good Cop, Bad Cop

When Detective Constable Chris Sketty is sent undercover by SO15 to gather information about a terrorist group, he’s wounded trying to prevent an attack. Moving between the present day and the fateful events fifteen years ago, we begin to doubt Chris’s version of what happened, to wonder what part he really played with the terrorists. Is Chris a rightly lauded hero, or a criminal mastermind? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

Dennis Lehane – Mystic River

Are all bent cops bad people? That’s the question asked in Dennis Lehane’s classic crime mystery. Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus and Dave Boyle are childhood friends – when a strange car pulls onto their street, two men pretending to be police try to force the boys to get in. Dave does so, the other two do not. What happens to Dave destroys their friendship and changes their lives forever. Many years later, Sean is a homicide detective. When Jimmy’s daughter is killed and on the same night Dave comes home with someone else’s blood on his shirt, it’s Sean who has to investigate. Will he be able to bring his old friend to justice? Or will he turn a blind eye?

Justin Fenton – We Own This City

In 2015, riots erupted in Baltimore after Freddie Gray, a twenty-five-year-old black man, died in police custody. This led to an investigation into Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, head of the Gun Trace Task Force, decorated heroes at the sharp end of the city’s fight against street crime. Over the next few years the shocking extent of the task force’s criminality was revealed – from stealing from victims’ homes to skimming cash off drug busts to planting fake evidence to throw anti-corruption agents off the scent. Few true accounts of police criminality will have your jaws swinging somewhere around your knees quite like this one.

Don Winslow – The Force

Not many novelists write corrupt police officers quite as well as Don Winslow. The Force tells the story of Denny Malone, a decorated NYPD detective sergeant who heads up a special unit given free rein to do whatever it takes to battle the scourge of street crime. The only problem is that Denny is dodgier than all the perps he has led down to the cells – he and his buddies have stolen millions. But when a heroin bust goes wrong, he stumbles into an FBI trap. Will Denny betray his friends to the feds to save himself?

Graeme McLagan – Bent Coppers

Fighting against the rising tide of police corruption in the 1990s, the Met Police created a new secret unit nicknamed the ‘Ghost Squad’. Their investigations exposed drug deals, fit-ups, police involvement planting evidence and sabotaging prosecutions – they even found officers complicit in robbing banks. Those involved didn’t take this exposé by McLagan quietly. A libel case was brought by ex-detective constable Michael Charman, who had been forced to resign for ‘discreditable conduct’. Spoiler alert: Charman lost.

Irvine Welsh – Filth

What happens when you take the idea of a morally bankrupt policeman, turn that idea up to eleven, turn that up by the square of eleven, pump him full of drugs and hate and send him out into the world? Meet Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson. While he’s not hassling people and sleeping with prostitutes, not to mention having to deal with a parasitic tapeworm, he’s roped into investigating a racially motivated hate crime. Too bad for Bruce, who’s racist enough already. I don’t think anyone but Irvine Welsh could pull this off.

James Ellroy – The L.A. Quartet

No one writes about corrupt police with the same style, intricacy and compelling veracity as James Ellroy. Whether it’s the young officer morphing into an obsessive avenging lover in The Black Dahlia, the glory-grabbing cadre of bent cops in The Big Nowhere, the beating of unnamed suspects in L.A. Confidential, or the shocking litany of crimes confessed to by LAPD officer Dave Klein – including theft, bribery and murder – in the final book in the series, White Jazz, wherever you turn in Ellroy’s world there’s always someone in uniform waiting to make your life much, much worse. Groundbreaking and compulsive in equal measure.

Dan Malakin has twice been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and his debut novel, The Regret, was a Kindle bestseller. His second novel, The Box, was published in 2022. When not writing thrillers, Dan works as a data security consultant, teaching corporations how to protect themselves from hackers. He lives in North London with his wife and daughter. The Wreckage of Us is published by Viper in hardback and eBook.
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Author photo by Delia Malakin