The NYPD does not need fiction to add to its mythological status as one of the world's most storied police departments. It has it all: from gang wars to 9/11 and corruption scandals to fighting the Mob.
On the one hand this makes New York highly fertile ground for crime fiction. "There are a million stories in the naked city," says Matt Scudder, Lawrence Block's New York cop-turned-PI, in Eight Million Ways to Die, one of the finest novels in an exceptional series.
But equally it must surely make it somewhat intimidating for writers. "Can you really do all this justice?" I imagine the empty page asking a writer embarking on an NYPD project.
And so I couldn't help but admire RJ Ellory's courage in taking on not only the NYPD in his latest novel, Saints of New York, but the idea of the NYPD. He takes on its legend in all its glory: both triumphant and grubby.
Saints of New York tells the tale of one lost and conflicted officer, Frank Parrish - a man who is at the lowest ebb of a troubled and controversial career, following the death of his partner in an incident in which he was heavily involved, and, in some circles, implicated in the blame.
Parrish is the son of one of New York's most celebrated detectives, an officer credited with unusual and extraordinary success in fighting the mafia as part of a dedicated unit that became known as the Saints of New York. And so his entire career has been viewed through the distorting prism of having to live up to the family name. But more than that Parrish lives with the knowledge - that he believes is unique to him - that his heroic father was actually a corrupt and morally bankrupt man living in the pocket of the Mob.
Saints of New York is essentially the psychological tale of a man close to losing everything - his career, his family, his mind - as he tries to reconcile his own fading world with the lustre of his father's glorious, but phony, status.
The books starts in the most dramatic fashion, with Parrish desperately trying to talk a former contact down from an alcohol-fuelled murder-suicide - a bid that ends in failure. But it exposes the core of Parrish: courage and a determination to do the right thing, allied with a sense that failure or misunderstanding of his motives by others is somehow inevitable.
Parrish is then given a new, young partner and lands a case of a vulnerable young woman who has been brutally murdered and her body casually disposed of. He quickly sees a pattern emerging that ties his case to other murders, but with his credibility at rock bottom finds it difficult to persuade his partner and superiors to follow his logic. This forces Parrish - who is convinced that he can save lives by proving his theory and nailing the murder - into a lone investigation in which he takes a series of ever more desperate and dangerous decisions.
The investigation is run in parallel with Parrish's enforced counselling following the death of his previous partner, and through it we learn the story of his father, Parrish's only family breakdown and his seeming inability to do the right thing by his wife and children - while he is obsessive in doing the right thing for crime victims. His investigation becomes as much a quest for redemption as it does for justice (even if Parrish himself cannot quite recongise this).
Parrish's obsessive and addictive personality - he's an alcoholic - is dangerous territory for Ellory as he takes himself to the precipice of cop cliché.
Less gifted writers, without Ellory's command of narrative and characterisation, would have toppled off the top and killed the story on the rocks below. But Ellory, as he's shown with A Simple Act of Violence and A Quiet Belief in Angels, is a bold and confident novellist and he tackles the ruined life of Frank Parrish with sensitivity but (largely) without sentimentality and delivers a moving and naked portrait of a deeply flawed but heroic man. On top that he gives readers a pulsating and tense mystery.
It's bloody good. Another cracking read from Ellory, one of the UK's very best crime writers. Nobody who likes crime, mystery and thrillers is going to be disappointed to get this one for Christmas. Put it on the lists.