We live in gray times, the days of stark black and white far behind us. In fiction, particularly crime fiction, the means for making sense of this gray landscape so often is the lawman (or law-woman), as conflicted a label as that now may be. “The cop is such a fascinating topic—dirty or clean,” says Juliet Grames, associate publisher at Soho Press. “We’re at a historical moment where a lot of Americans are experiencing the cognitive dissonance that both of these [labels] exist simultaneously, and for good reason, all over the country.”
Upcoming crime novels set in all corners of this country and, indeed, across the globe, reflect this uneasy state: it’s often those who are meant to do the protecting who end up being feared the most. Here, we take a look at what’s next in graft, corruption, and brutality. But don’t worry: it’s only fiction, right?
New York’s Not-So-Finest
For Julia Dahl, who sets her Rebekah Roberts series in the Hasidic communities of New York City, the Big Apple is defined by neither the vice and grime of the not-so-distant past nor the picturesque Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty of tourists’ postcards. She began writing about New York’s Hasidic communities because she was “interested in their relationship with the police department,” she says. “There is a desire among many haredi [or ultra-Orthodox] to handle unpleasant things—child abuse, domestic violence, mental illness—‘in the fold.’ ”
Conviction (Minotaur, Jan. 2017) details a fictional 1992 murder—a year after the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn—that leads to the potential wrongful conviction of a teenager. The effects of this possible injustice reverberate decades later for Dahl’s series protagonist, investigative journalist Rebekah Roberts, as she—and Dahl—study the teen who claims he didn’t do the crime and also the systemic problems that allowed for the situation to arise in the first place.
Further east in Suffolk County, Long Island, retired cop Gus Murphy, who now drives a hotel van, tangles with the Russian mob in What You Break by Reed Farrel Coleman (Putnam, Feb. 2017). For the author’s first Murphy installment, 2016’s Where It Hurts, Coleman says that he “didn’t need to stretch [his] imagination, in that there was a huge corruption and brutality scandal playing out in the media in Suffolk County.” Even though Coleman says that “Gus isn’t defined by corruption” like prior series protagonists of Coleman’s such as Moe Prager (2014’s The Hollow Girl), who is molded by the corruption of the NYPD of the 1970s and ’80s, this new series still can’t escape the stink of dirty cops, even if they’re not front and center. The cops might have one way of dealing with the Russian mob on paper, but it’s very different on the street and behind closed doors, and those are the places that Gus, no longer an official law enforcement officer, must look.
In Proving Ground by Peter Blauner (Minotaur, May 2017), a veteran novelist and coexecutive producer for CBS’s Blue Bloods, an NYPD detective trying to get back on her feet professionally after a demotion, courtesy of a corrupt ex-partner, gets caught up in the investigation of the murder of a civil rights attorney who spearheaded high-profile cases against the NYPD. Even though corruption is “very much part of the atmosphere all my characters breathe, most people—even most police officers—would agree that it’s wrong,” Blauner says. “So that’s not news. Which means you need to say something fresh about it every time.”
“Los Angeles is a diva, and she deserves to be written in an honest, respectful way or else she’ll cut you,” Rachel Howzell Hall says of the city where she sets her Det. Eloise “Lou” Norton series. A black cop working the streets she grew up in, Norton is an outlier in the ranks of crime fiction’s police detectives, a genre that skews heavily white. Norton, Hall says, is an LAPD homicide detective as well as “a black woman who truly understands what it means to be black in a town where the police headquarters are named after a chief who was a segregationist.”
Deeply ingrained institutional racism, as well as a long history of police brutality and corruption, runs through Hall’s City of Saviors (Forge, Aug. 2017). Kristin Sevick, senior editor at Tor/Forge and Hall’s editor, underscores the importance of confronting subjects like those the author tackles throughout her series. “Ignoring serious social issues like police corruption and brutality in a crime novel is akin to leaving social media out of a contemporary YA novel,” Sevick says. “You can’t pretend these things don’t exist, that the characters aren’t aware of the issues or impacted by them.”
Los Angeles takes a backseat in Daniel Pyne’s Catalina Eddy (Blue Rider, Mar. 2017), which ranges across much of Southern California over three decades. David Rosenthal, president and publisher at Blue Rider/Plume, describes Eddy as “three criminal-justice novellas” containing “bad cops, bad prosecutors, and good cops and good prosecutors in each.” Pyne, a veteran screenwriter with Miami Vice and Alcatraz on his résumé, makes the whole state of California as rotten as the cops at Eddy’s core, and it’s this starkness that made the book stand out for Rosenthal. “We don’t edit or publish in a vacuum,” he says. “All books are informed by the real world. A good book is about raising ideas, challenging received opinions.”
Down South, the cities may be smaller but the magnitude of the crimes doesn’t shrink in proportion. “It’s the job of crime fiction to explore crime in all of its ramifications,” says Terry Shames, author of An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock (Prometheus Books, Jan. 2017). Shames sets her series featuring Sheriff Craddock in the fictional Texas town of Jarrett Creek. “When law enforcement is part of the problem, it presents a particularly difficult situation.”
Joe R. Lansdale, author of Rusty Puppy (Mulholland, Mar. 2017), set his long-running series featuring Hap Collins, who is white and straight, and Leonard Pine, who is black and gay, in his home area of East Texas because East Texas is what he knows. “We are, unfortunately, famous for small-town-cop corruption, much of it racial,” he says.
In the latest installment of Becky Masterman’s Brigid Quinn series, A Twist of the Knife (Minotaur, Mar. 2017), the ex-FBI agent leaves Arizona for her home state of Florida to help a former colleague investigate the possible wrongful conviction of a death row inmate.
When she researched the setting for this latest book, Masterman discovered that, “of the nearly 3,000 death row inmates in the United States, 400 of them reside in Florida, some for more than 20 years,” she says.
Masterman’s editor, Hope Dellon, says that while she believes “one of the key functions of a fiction editor is to try to help the author’s imagination ring true to the reader” and be as accurate to real life as possible, she’s “often skeptical of novels that are obviously ‘ripped from the headlines’ ” and thinks that there’s plenty of nonfiction that can address those topics directly. In Knife, she says, “there is an undercurrent of corruption and incompetence that plays into the larger themes of determining guilt or innocence.” Of course, as Masterman points out, “None of my characters see themselves as corrupt—they’re only seeking justice. I’m interested in how far they’ll go to get it.”
Trudy Nan Boyce’s Atlanta-based Old Bones (Putnam, Feb. 2017) touches on a theme of deeply embedded institutional racism, similar to that of Hall’s Los Angeles-based series. “Minority issues are a part of the fabric of my city,” Boyce says. “It’s an iconic city for coming to grips with injustice.”
Bones tackles issues that readers see in the news every day: violence alongside peaceful protests, and gun crime on a college campus. Boyce sets Bones around the historically black Spelman College, in the wake of protest for police reform. Just as in Los Angeles, where the LAPD headquarters bears the name of a racist former police chief, the wounds of Atlanta, and beyond, are deep. “The use-of-force incidents in the media in recent years did not start with the moment an officer came in contact with the individual,” Boyce says. “They began centuries earlier.”
Elsewhere in the United States of Crime
Seattle, with its inclement weather and the unusually high number of serial killers who have lived or operated near there, provides the backdrop for Edward Kay’s debut, At Rope’s End (Crooked Lane, Jan. 2017). Kay’s protagonist, a forensic psychologist with a troubled past who specializes in eyewitness recall, pairs up with a cop to solve what appears to be a case of serial murder. A journalist from a cop family, Kay says that it was “inevitable that [police corruption] would turn up in my writing.”
Since before the days of Al Capone, Chicago has had a reputation as a playground for corrupt politicians whose malefactions often spilled over into the police force. Danny Gardner’s self-published debut novel, A Negro and an Ofay, which Down & Out Books has picked up for publication in May 2017, tackles Chicago corruption and racial tensions in the 1950s. His biracial protagonist, a detective named Elliot Caprice, killed two crooked cops, which doesn’t bode well for his reputation with the Chicago PD. Now he’s working as a process server in his farming hometown, until a murder beckons him back to the job.
Heading to the Southwest, James R. Scarantino makes it clear that the Santa Fe of his novels, while “charming, artsy, magical, and a tourist and Hollywood favorite, is also a shockingly stratified community.” His series protagonist, Det. Denise Aragon, grew up in the “forgotten” Santa Fe and, Scarantino says, “works in both Santa Fes, and they are far more violent in reality than the tourist council wants us to know.” In Compromised (Midnight Ink, Feb. 2017), Aragon wrestles with unruly witnesses, an untrustworthy judge, and the machinations of the secret powers behind Santa Fe society, including the sometimes murderous men who make things happen behind the scenes. Sometimes their schemes include turning cops dirty and, as Scarantino says, it would be “writing lies” to gloss over the flaws of those who wear police uniforms and perpetrate violence.
Near the Arizona Navajo Reservation, Gwen Florio’s fictional journalist Lola Wicks confronts the threat of ecoterrorists in Reservations (Midnight Ink, Mar. 2017), the fourth in her Lola Wicks series. Florio says that the new book, as with all of her novels, “deals with the truism that power corrupts—whether held by police, politicians, or just ordinary people who unexpectedly find themselves vested with it.” The author, who is also a journalist, believes that it’s the job of journalism and, sometimes, fiction, to “point out when our public institutions are failing, and one of the starkest failures is when police, instead of protecting our most vulnerable citizens, abuse and prey upon them.”
Corruption Goes Global
The Fifth Element
Jørgen Brekke. Minotaur, Feb. 2017
In Brekke’s third Trondheim-set series installment featuring police inspector Odd Singsaker, Singsaker struggles to uncover who murdered his wife. According to Brekke, a “corrupt policeman, who at the same time is a broken down, disillusioned, and nihilistic individual,” helps to form the core of the story along with Singsaker, himself accused of misconduct and violent behavior. Though he sees Element as a character-driven tale, Brekke is quick to point out that “police brutality is, sadly, a recurring issue even in small, democratic, and relatively peaceful societies such as [Norway].”
Every Night I Dream of Hell
Malcolm Mackay. Mulholland, Apr. 2017
“The police force will always be, to some extent, a reflection of the society it serves,” Scottish author Malcolm Mackay says, “and sometimes society is a horrible, violent, prejudiced embarrassment.” Even though Mackay’s novels deal primarily with organized crime, his Glaswegian coppers don’t come off looking any better than the criminals they’re meant to be chasing. Perhaps that’s because, according to Mackay, he’s “writing about the corruption of the people who should be fighting it, police lured into working against the very people they’re supposed to protect, out of greed or stupidity.”
Rather Be the Devil
Ian Rankin. Little, Brown, Jan. 2017
In Edinburgh, Rankin’s now semiretired Det. John Rebus—celebrating 30 years on the page in 2017—is king. The character, who’s known for bending the rules, isn’t opposed to doing whatever’s necessary to get the job done, regardless of the cost. Things have changed over his three decades on the force, though. “Readers like their fictional mavericks and outsiders,” Rankin says. “But those good old bad old days are not the ones I want to return to in the real world—I like to think that cops know they can’t get away with the tricks they used to pull.” The Rebus of 2017 is a far cry from the hard-drinking detective of 1987’s Knots & Crosses. But he still gets results.
Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly
Adrian McKinty. Seventh Street, Mar. 2017
Nothing quite says “bad old days” like being a cop in Belfast during the 1980s at the height of the Troubles, the setting for Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series. “When you’re dealing with the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary], possibly—along with the South African police—the most controversial police force in the world in the ’70s and ’80s,” McKinty says, “you can’t ignore the issues of racism, sectarianism, shoot-to-kill, brutality, and corruption.” And Belfast in the 1980s was “such an insane Blade Runner–like world of soldiers and police, daily riots, rain, and terrorist attacks,” McKinty says.
The Third Squad
V. Sanjay Kumar. Akashic, Mar. 2017
In The Third Squad, Indian author V. Sanjay Kumar’s novel focusing on the extrajudicial assassinations of suspected criminals that took place in Mumbai 20 years ago, it was important to Kumar not only to tell a socially relevant story but also, he says, to depict “my city, my Mumbai, the one left behind by the hollow promises of neoliberalism and progress.” The relationship between the police and the citizens of India is fraught, Kumar says, and “petty corruption is widespread in all walks of life, including the police force.” Telling individual stories can illuminate larger systemic issues, as evidenced in Squad. Ibrahim Ahmad, editorial director at Akashic, calls Squad “a character study of a cop developing a sense of right and wrong in the face of systemic, wholesale corruption—almost like an Indian Serpico.”
Below, more on the subject of mysteries.
Down and Dirty in Detroit: PW Talks with Stephen Mack Jones
Poet and playwright Jones sets his first crime novel, 'August Snow,' in a corruption-ridden Detroit.
Jordan Foster is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. She received her M.F.A. in fiction from Columbia University.