Don Winslow’s intoxicating new crime thriller, The Force (William Morrow, 479 pp., **** out of four stars), is a riveting ride-along with the Manhattan North Special Task Force, an elite NYPD unit commissioned to battle drugs, guns and gangs in upper Manhattan’s mean streets and projects.

In charge is veteran NYPD Detective Sgt. Denny Malone, a larger-than-life hero who started as a flatfoot with a gun and nightstick. Now he’s 38, a smart, hardened cop, “The King of Manhattan North.” He and his crack team’s street cred: tough, ruthless and fair.

So how does this epic tale begin with Malone in federal lockup? No one thought Malone would end up behind bars “except maybe God,” the narrator tells us, “and he wasn’t talking.”

How good cops end up dirty is the compelling story Winslow tells through plot-building flashbacks detailing months of the Task Force’s shakedowns, busts, heroics and criminal behavior. To protect the community, Malone and his partners do whatever it takes.

Malone picks up bad habits keeping Manhattan North in line. Besides popping Dexedrine, he handles cash envelopes for favors; smokes some dope, and administers his own justice. He bails on his Staten Island life, wife and kids for the bright lights. He thinks he’s got the “best job in the whole freakin’ world”…until it isn’t.

What sends the scales of justice crashing down on Malone is the night he and his partners raid a Harlem heroin mill, execute the drug lord, pocket $4 million and smuggle 20 kilos. Retirement and kids’ college money, but that crossed the line big time.

The novel starts with a Raymond Chandler quote about cops being regular people: “…They start out that way, I’ve heard.” Pitch perfect since this gritty crime drama’s narrative channels Chandler’s hard-boiled voice, except with today’s jargon rather…