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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Alan Parks

Top 10 cops in fiction

Shaun Evans as Endeavour Morse (right) with Roger Allam as DI Fred Thursday.
Quiet disappointment ahead … Shaun Evans as Endeavour Morse (right) with Roger Allam as DI Fred Thursday. Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

Cops. Good ones, bad ones, corrupt ones, ones with hunches, ones that fight the system, ones that drink, ones that have unhappy home lives, ones that have an unsolved case haunting them. They come in all varieties in crime fiction – though sadly for the most part they are still all men – and apart from solving the case in hand they have to entertain us en route. Their foibles are part of the deal. The cop who listens to classical music, who spends half his hours drinking real ale in a cosy pub, the cop who reads philosophy in his spare time. Every cop needs a gimmick.

Unlike the private eyes and Sherlock Holmes-type geniuses, most cops have two battles to fight. The battle to catch the criminal and the battle within their own force. It’s not often a cop in fiction happily rubs along with his boss and co-workers. Dealing with the hierarchies and complications of station life is often as important a part of the story as finding out the butler did it.

And what thanks do they get? Generally, none. They just wake up the next day and start out on another case. The struggle to put the world to rights never ends. I think that’s why we enjoy reading about them so much, there’s always another case to be solved, another pint to be drunk, more jazz to be listened to, and we get to go along with them.

And I’m as guilty as the rest of them. My detective Harry McCoy drinks too much, argues with his boss, spends his time investigating crimes he’s not supposed to, has a loyal sidekick. Pretty much every cliche in the book. I used to kid myself that I was featuring these cliches in order to subvert them. Nowadays I just come clean, I like wallowing in them. After all, if McCoy didn’t have all of these characteristics would he even be a fictional cop? The jury’s out as far as I’m concerned.

1. Bernie Gunther
Bernie Gunther is the creation of the late Philip Kerr. A middle-ranking cop trying to make his way as the Berlin in which he lives changes in ways he can hardly imagine. The series jumps from before the second world war to after, but I think the first three books in the series – collected in one edition called Berlin Noir – are the most interesting. Berlin in all its poverty and dangerous glory shines through in every page. And Gunther is our perfect guide.

2. Dudley Smith
The bad cop par excellence appears in James Ellroy’s books about Los Angeles. He exudes false bonhomie to those he needs to keep onside and has a cold urge to destroy those he doesn’t. No one, including his closest colleagues, is safe. By placing a monster at the centre of the Los Angeles police department Ellroy makes it very plain there is nowhere safe in the city of angels.

3. Endeavour Morse
Probably more famous now as the star of the TV series, Colin Dexter’s complicated policeman is a wonder of intelligence and a kind of resolved fatalism. He goes at his own pace, spends an inordinate amount of time in the pub, exasperates his faithful sidekick Lewis and always gets his man. He’s a man destined for a life of quiet disappointment and dreams of what could have been. Everyman.

4. Harry Bosch
Bosch features in twentysomething of Michael Connolly’s LA-set series. After a horrendous upbringing and a spell in the army during the Vietnam war, Bosch has a past that keeps coming back to haunt him. This doesn’t stop him being a cop par excellence. These books are the benchmark for sustaining a character over a long series. Connolly’s gift is to keep Bosch evolving while he stays the same. Not easy to do. If you want to find out how a great crime thriller works just read one of these books.

5. Alex Morrow
Denise Mina’s DI is unusual not only for being a woman – whose detective work does not stop even when she is heavily pregnant – but in her alertness to the social forces driving offenders to their crimes. (Her sympathies are sharpened by having a half-brother who winds up in jail.) She is also, as you would expect, more aware than most cops of misogyny on both sides of the legal fence.

6. John Rebus

Ken Stott as Inspector Rebus.
Ken Stott as Inspector Rebus. Photograph: ITV

Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh-based detective has aged in real time as the series goes on. Now he’s not in the best of health and retired. But he’s still sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted and long may he do so. Rankin manages to keep Rebus involved in the changing city, keeps him in the here and now, still vital.

7. Jack Laidlaw
William McIlvanney’s Glasgow cop is in many ways the origin story of tartan noir. As Alan Massie wrote, “Hemingway used to say that all American literature came out of Huckleberry Finn; all Scottish crime writing … comes out of Laidlaw.” Which is strange because the Laidlaw books are more like European modernist novels than whodunnits. McIlvanney often seems more concerned with Glasgow, the state of the nation and the state of Laidlaw’s mind than anything else. It’s partly due to this that the books stand up to repeated reading. If ever there were truly literary crime novels, it’s the Laidlaw books.

8. Sean Duffy
Adrian McKinty’s series of Sean Duffy books are another great example of books illuminating a certain time and place, in this case Belfast during the Troubles. There’s an ambivalence about almost every aspect of the book, including Duffy himself. He’s a Catholic in the RUC, a man out of sync. The Troubles weave in and out of the narratives, reminding us of what an extreme time it was. These are crime novels that are unafraid to explore the complications of living at a time when which church you went to could be enough to get you killed.

9. Hawthorn and Child
Is Keith Ridgway’s book a crime novel? Sometimes it hard to say. Hawthorn and Child are about as far from conventional cops as it’s possible to be. They don’t even seem interested in the crime they are meant to be solving. Ridgeway has taken the crime writing handbook and not so much ripped it up as machine gunned it into tiny pieces. Crime and other genre fiction is often criticised, somewhat rightly, as being very traditional and fixed in its structures. Not this one. To read it is to be immersed in a world you can’t quite understand. It’s about as far from a whodunnit as you can get, and it is well worth the trip.

10. Boggs and Smith
The detectives in the Darktown Trilogy by Thomas Mullen have everything against them. They are newly appointed Black cops in Atlanta in 1938. Their white colleagues have nothing but contempt for them, they aren’t allowed to arrest white suspects or drive a car. Mullen uses the crime novel to present a portrait of two cops doing their best amid the beginnings of the civil rights movement. Throughout the books some of their white counterparts change their attitudes. Some don’t. Boggs and Smith keep going, after all they are cops, just cops, and that’s what cops do.

• To Die in June by Alan Parks is published by Canongate. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.

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