Cover image of "The Man on the Balcony," one of the best police procedurals

Police procedurals differ from other stories about investigations by police detectives in one fundamental way. The lead detective is not a lone wolf but a member of a team and often draws upon the resources of the whole department. In most detective novels, the central figure emerges as a hero, overcoming seemingly insuperable odds. But there are no superheroes in police procedurals, and few heroes. Investigations sometimes drag on for months or even years. The work all too often involves drudgery. These stories, which represent the best police procedurals I’ve read, can be thrilling. But the thrills are hard won. 

I’ve listed my six selections from among the scores of police procedurals I’ve reviewed over the years. But as you’ll see, the list includes only one book by each author, even though some might have published more than one great example of the genre. (In fact, all six novels here are from series, some of them long-running.) They appear in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. And each is linked to my review. 

Cover image of "The Dead of Winter," one of the best police procedurals

The Dead of Winter (John Madden #3 of 6) by Rennie Airth (2009) 428 pages ★★★★★—A gripping World War II English police procedural

The John Madden series spans the two world wars and the post-war years into the 1950s. After a relatively short stint at Scotland Yard before and just after World War I, Madden retires to the countryside, where he lives with his physician wife, Helen. The cases in which Madden (and sometimes Helen) become involved always include his erstwhile boss at Scotland Yard, himself retired in the later books, as well as local bobbies. I’ve reviewed all the books in The engrossing John Madden British police procedurals.

Cover image of "The Keeper of Lost Causes"

The Keeper of Lost Causes (Department Q #1 of 8) by Jussi Adler-Olsen (2007) 512 pages ★★★★★—Superb Scandinavian noir from Denmark

Carl Mørck is the odd man out in the Copenhagen police. Most of his bosses despise him. And as punishment for one screwup or another, imagined or not, they’ve banished him to the basement and assigned two (and later three) other outcasts as his staff. Together, this ragtag team takes on the most troublesome cold cases in the department’s history. They invariably involve extremely complex and dangerous assignments—but the team always wins in the end. You’l find reviews of all the books in the series at Jussi-Adler Olsen’s captivating Department Q thrillers.

Cover image of "Dreaming of the Bones," one of the best police procedurals

Dreaming of the Bones (Duncan Kincaid and Gemma Jones #5 of 20) by Deborah Crombie (1997) 387 pages ★★★★★—An award-winning British detective novel written by a Texan

The two Scotland Yard detectives in this long-running series meet when then-Sergeant Gemma Jones is assigned to work with Inspector Duncan Kincaid. Over the years, they grow close and eventually marry as both move a little up the promotions ladder. They take on cases in rural England to assist the local bobbies. Surprisingly, the author of this popular Scotland Yard series is a Texan.

Cover image of "A Cold Red Sunrise"

A Cold Red Sunrise (Porfiry Rostnikov #1 of 16) by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1988) 332 pages ★★★★★—A terrific historical murder mystery set in the USSR

Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov is a top investigator for the Moscow police during the final decade of Communist rule and the first two decades afterward. He is also one of the few who is scrupulously honest, which frequently brings him into conflict with the KGB, its successors, or other powerful figures. Though the department’s name changes over time, and they are reassigned from one office to another, Inspector Rostnikov leads a small team of other able and honest detectives. At first two (and later three) play co-starring roles in a series of cases that cast a bright light on the changes underway in Russian society over three fateful decades. I’m reviewing them all in Police procedurals spanning modern Russian history.

Cover image of "Cop Hater," one of the best police procedurals

Cop Hater (87th Precinct #1 of 52) by Ed McBain (1956) 224 pages ★★★★★—The first of the original police procedural series

The fifty-two novels of the 87th Precinct series are pure police procedurals. There is no central figure at the precinct. A shifting series of cops takes on whatever cases crop up in the precinct’s territory. Over time, several figures become recognizable as recurring characters. But they always work as a team. First appearing in print six decades ago, these stories depict crime in a large Eastern American city resembling New York City as it must have been decades ago. 

Cover image of "When Red Is Black"

When Red Is Black (Inspector Chen #3) by Qiu Xiaolong (2005) 322 pages ★★★★☆—This gripping crime novel shows China in transition

With thirteen books in print as of 2024, Qiu Xiaolong’s series of novels about Inspector Chen Cao and his Special Investigations Squad of the Shanghai Police Bureau paints a vivid picture of a city, and a country, in transition in the 1990s. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms had begun more than a decade earlier. The changes were not yet visible on the surface, but in social relations and the people’s expectations the new reality continued to shock. Inspector Chen has to weave a path ever so carefully between the demands of the Party and his own quest for justice.

Cover image of "The Man on the Balcony," one of the best police procedurals

The Man on the Balcony (Martin Beck #3 of 10) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (1965) 194 pages ★★★★★—Nordic Noir before Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, and Stieg Larsson

The husband-and-wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö set out in 1965 to write a series of ten novels depicting the changes then underway in Swedish society. They were both Leftists and approached the job with an eye to the challenges of poverty at a time before social reforms began to address them adequately. Nearly every Scandinavian crime writer acknowledges the pair’s pioneering work in establishing the Nordic Noir genre. 

See the lists of police procedurals I’ve created for three different series:

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