6 great books that explore the inner lives of cops

The award-­winning crime novelist Don Winslow recommends works by Dennis Lehane, James Ellroy, and more

Don Winston
(Image credit: Courtesy photo)

As selected by the award-winning crime novelist Don Winslow:

The New Centurions by Joseph Wambaugh (Grand Central, $8). The first modern cop novel, virtually without plot, tells of the inner lives of three L.A. cops from the class of 1960. Wambaugh's description of the Watts riots should be read today.

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (William Morrow, $17). Lehane's novel about the Boston police strike of 1919 starts, surprisingly, with a description of an impromptu baseball game between Babe Ruth's Red Sox and a pickup team of African-Americans. But The Given Day is mostly about patrolman Danny Coughlin and the conflict between fulfilling one's duty and fighting a corrupt system. It's as powerful as anything you'll ever read.

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L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy (Grand Central, $16). The third book in Ellroy's L.A. Quartet (I could have chosen any of them) follows three cops navigating the politics, corruption, and institutional culture of the 1950s L.A.P.D. Beautifully written, of course, and intensely atmospheric, the novel sheds real light on cops' lives.

Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos (Back Bay, $17). Derek Strange, a PI in other Pelecanos novels, is here a black rookie cop who has joined the Washington, D.C., police force shortly before the city's 1968 race-fueled riots. I'd read Pelecanos' laundry list. But among his books, this is a favorite.

Prince of the City by Robert Daley (Moyer Bell, $13). The true tale of N.Y.P.D. detective Bob Leuci and an early 1970s corruption scandal among a group of ultra-elite drug cops is both a grittily realistic law enforcement story and a moral fable. It's a must-read for anyone who wants to understand cop culture.

Resurrection Men by Ian Rankin (Back Bay, $15). My favorite novel in the great John Rebus series has the Scottish investigator in trouble and relegated to a unit of out-of-favor cops assigned to hopeless cold cases. Rankin is famous for illuminating Edinburgh's underworld, but it's Rebus' inner life that I find so compelling — the loneliness, the introspection. That, and Rankin's always beautiful writing.

Don Winslow's latest thriller, The Cartel, continues the sweeping drug-war saga that he began with his 2005 novel, The Power of the Dog.

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