Troubled small town cop uncovers a big secret: examples?
October 4, 2010 5:46 AM   Subscribe

Looking for examples of this trope: low key but doggedly determined cop in a small/medium sized town. Personal problems. A close-knit community. A series of murders that ultimately point to a much bigger story than anyone expected. His personal life unravels and ravels as he investigates, treading on eggshells as he goes. Emphasis much less on the procedural aspects than the emotional. Genre thriller as opposed to mystery (ie the cop protagonist is in personal jeopardy).

Some obvious examples: Wallender, Giles Blunt's Forty Words for Sorrow and other John Cardinal stories, Lone Star, and so on.

Bonus points for interesting locations.
posted by unSane to Media & Arts (49 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
This might be a slightly odd example, but the first thing that sprung to mind was Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, set in a slightly-alternate universe in which displaced Jews have mainly settled in Sitka, Alaska. Sitka isn't actually all that small, but the isolation of it makes the action feel constrained in a similar small-town sort of way.
posted by dorque at 5:53 AM on October 4, 2010 [10 favorites]

Are you only looking for books? Because I've got a movie for you: Insomnia, in which two L.A. cops are sent to investigate a murder under the midnight sun. It's got the personal life unraveling, the cop in danger, the series of murders, the small-town dynamics, and a very very interesting location.
posted by ourobouros at 5:55 AM on October 4, 2010

Response by poster: Not restricted to books at all. Any medium.
posted by unSane at 5:59 AM on October 4, 2010

I think the movie Cop Land might fit the bill.
posted by Paquda at 6:00 AM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: (Insomnia is very very close but not quite in the groove because the Pacino character isn't in his home town)
posted by unSane at 6:00 AM on October 4, 2010

Response by poster: Looking for stuff with less of a sub/urban vibe than (the excellent) Cop Land.
posted by unSane at 6:02 AM on October 4, 2010

The movie Hot Fuzz might fit the bill, although it's a comedy.
posted by jangie at 6:03 AM on October 4, 2010 [6 favorites]

There is a famous novel by Stephen King, "The Dead Zone" which also became both a movie and many years later, a TV series, which is not primarily about the policeman, but which does contain the plot elements that you describe.
posted by grizzled at 6:04 AM on October 4, 2010

I immediately thought of the Dave Robicheaux novels by James Lee Burke. Set in Louisiana, Burke describes the heat and humidity of the bayou perfectly. Good stories, great characters, personal demons - the whole bit.
posted by Acton at 6:07 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Isn't that the theme of "In The Heat of The Night"?
posted by gjc at 6:12 AM on October 4, 2010

C.J. Box's Joe Pickett books, set in Wyoming, came to mind.
posted by questionsandanchors at 6:13 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

The first (and subsequent) series of Prime Suspect would fit the bill except that it's set in London (but worth seeing for excellent writing, acting, etc.).
posted by ceri richard at 6:26 AM on October 4, 2010

posted by thirteenkiller at 6:28 AM on October 4, 2010

First season of Veronica Mars
posted by gnat at 6:33 AM on October 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I was gonna say Cop Land too, this is exactly what you're looking for.
posted by escabeche at 6:37 AM on October 4, 2010

John Connolly's Charlie Parker books would fit, although he's a retired cop acting as a private investigator. There are some supernatural elements, too.
posted by something something at 6:41 AM on October 4, 2010

The Cobweb by Neal Stephenson & J. Frederick George seems to fit the bill.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 6:47 AM on October 4, 2010

Sounds like you're looking for One False Move.
posted by heatvision at 6:48 AM on October 4, 2010

The Edge of Darkness (1985)
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:51 AM on October 4, 2010

Adam Dalgliesh by PD James though he does have a bit of class
posted by The Lady is a designer at 7:06 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I only watched the pilot and it seems like the biggest POS show ever made, but The Gates seemed to be going in this direction.
posted by phunniemee at 7:11 AM on October 4, 2010

Not quite a cop movie, but JFK hits the plot points.
posted by rtimmel at 7:11 AM on October 4, 2010

Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels kind of fit -- Glasgow isn't a small town but it's not so big either.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:12 AM on October 4, 2010

The Wicker Man?
posted by ComfySofa at 7:13 AM on October 4, 2010

How about Fargo?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:19 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's a subplot, but it definitely applies to Andy Bellefleur in True Blood seasons 1 and 2.
posted by The Michael The at 7:22 AM on October 4, 2010

Witness fits the bill.
posted by nameleech at 7:31 AM on October 4, 2010

It's been a good 20+ years since I read the novel or saw the television mini-series, but I think Stuart Woods' Chiefs would probably be along the lines of what you're looking for.
posted by roosterboy at 7:54 AM on October 4, 2010

Twin Peaks is more thriller than mystery, and he's an FBI agent, not a cop, but otherwise it fits your bill.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 8:03 AM on October 4, 2010

It's been a while, but I think that Peter Lovesy's Inspector Diamond series of mysteries comes close to your criteria. Except for him being a somewhat bigger fish.
posted by mumkin at 8:11 AM on October 4, 2010

The remake is not bad, but the original Insomnia is quite good. The protagonist is not a cop, but "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is also pretty close.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 8:12 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

William Kent Krueger's Cork O'Connor books (he's a some-time sheriff in small-town Minnesota)

Steve Hamilton's Alex McKnight books (ex-cop / PI in small-town upper penininsula, Michigan)

Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire books
(sheriff in small-town Wyoming)

Peter Bowen's Gabriel Du Pre books (brand inspector in small-town Montana).
posted by dersins at 8:13 AM on October 4, 2010

Would Tony Hillerman's books count? Definitely a closed in feel on the Reservation and the dogged cop team stumbling and investigating issues such as, looting of artifacts, Thief of Time.
posted by jadepearl at 8:15 AM on October 4, 2010

John Hart's books all fit this to varying extent. His most recent book The Last Child is pretty much exactly what you asked for (depending on whether you consider rural North Carolina to be interesting).
posted by hydropsyche at 8:20 AM on October 4, 2010

You want this book: Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo. The protagonist is female, not male, but she's the police chief in Amish Pennsylvania who gets caught up in the murders affecting the Amish population there, and her own personal story gets closely tangled up with the investigation. Excellent book and I can't wait to read the next book in the series.

There's also a series of books by Don Harstad, starting with Eleven Days, about a deputy sheriff in northeastern Iowa. I love this series and wish he'd written more than the 5 books. Personal problems, close-knit community, not urban, protagonist gets caught up in the story, strong supporting cast of characters and not so much focus on the forensics as the story line.

I love this kind of detective/cop fiction and will pop in if I think of any others...
posted by widdershins at 8:27 AM on October 4, 2010

The movie Terribly Happy is exactly what you describe, and is about a disgraced Copenhagen cop sent down to a small (and, we come to realize, extremely creepy) Denmark town.
posted by nicwolff at 8:30 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's a subplot like this in Niel Gaiman's "American Gods" if you don't mind some mythic/supernatural themes.
posted by contraption at 8:35 AM on October 4, 2010

Oddly enough, Hukkle. Which has almost no words, and a strange nature documentary vibe.
posted by ubersturm at 8:36 AM on October 4, 2010

heatvision: "Sounds like you're looking for One False Move"

YES. I came in here to recommend this. Fits your question to a tee.

Also, No Country For Old Men.
posted by mkultra at 9:14 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is practically the synopsis for Copland. I love this movie....
posted by lattiboy at 9:22 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Twin Peaks is more thriller than mystery
And by that, I meant "more mystery than thriller". But there are definitely thrilling moments, even if most of it is more of a creeping dread.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 9:59 AM on October 4, 2010

posted by nomad at 10:01 AM on October 4, 2010

Try Jonathan Carroll's The Wooden Sea
He's a remarkable writer and this one might get you hooked.
posted by OHenryPacey at 2:42 PM on October 4, 2010

If you replace "low key cop" with "somewhat enigmatic FBI agent", the game Deadly Premonition fits your description really well.

The reviews for it run the gamut but I would really recommend it.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 4:36 PM on October 4, 2010

*although there are local cops involved too, the story centers on the FBI agent.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 4:37 PM on October 4, 2010

Most of the Kevin Kerney series by Michael McGarrity. In some of them there may be only one murder, or some non-murderous crimes, and there are a number of locations in the books that are not in towns at all, but they mostly fit the bill. They are set around New Mexico, in a variety of locations from remote forested ranches to Santa Fe to military weapons testing areas.
posted by yohko at 7:25 PM on October 4, 2010

Robert Parker's books with his detective Spenser. Tom Selleck's tv series with the Jesse Stone character.

Seconding jadepearl's recommendation of the Hillerman books. I can't imagine a series meeting your qualifications more squarely than those. Also, they are the best use of place in any thriller/mystery/detective stories ever. Sadly, they never translated well to the screen although there have been a couple of attempts.
posted by Anitanola at 10:06 PM on October 4, 2010

I really want to say Mystic River - it's not quite right, but so close. I mean, Boston isn't a small town, but the neighborhood is certainly a close-knit community and a major element of the story. Not really a series of murders, but there are multiple crimes linked to a larger story. Can't really recall the cop-protagonist being in danger, but there's definitely more of the emotional than the procedural going on. (Also lots of other things going on, important pieces that aren't in your trope summary. Like I said, so close, but not quite there, but enough to make me want to mention it anyway.)
posted by sigmagalator at 6:43 PM on October 5, 2010

Gone Baby Gone. (Great film.)
posted by Put the kettle on at 9:41 PM on November 7, 2010

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