RARA-AVIS: Dorothy Uhnak

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 02 Sep 2002

This will be the first of (hopefully) several short observations on cops who write police procedurals that I'll be sending along during this month.

Way back when I first got joined RARA-AVIS, a discussion developed over whether women writers were capable of writing hard-boiled. During the course of that thread, I weighed in with the opinion that any writer (male or female) whose work is tough and colloquial could and should be considered hard-boiled.
 The comment "tough and colloquial" was entirely off-hand, and I had no idea at the time that I was suggesting a definitive answer to the question,
"What does 'hard-boiled' mean?"

Anyway, inasmuch as one of my first RARA-AVIS posts was about the relative toughness of women writers, it now seems appropriate to profile Detective Dorothy Uhnak, who spent ten years as an officer in the New York City Transit Police, winning their highest decoration for valor along the way, before becoming a best-selling novelist.

Ms. Uhnak's first book, POLICEWOMAN, a non-fiction autobiography describing her law enforcement career, came out in the mid-60s. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first "cop memoir" to be written by a woman cop.

Her first novel, THE BAIT, appeared in 1968, after she left the Force. Introducing her only series character, NYPD Detective Christie Opara, of the Manhattan DA's Squad, it won the Edgar for Best First Novel (ironically it tied in that category with another procedural, SILVER STREET, which, like THE BAIT, dealt with the police search for a serial killer; where Ms. Uhnak had been a cop, SILVER STREET's author, E. Richard Johnson, was a convict doing time for homicide). The other two books in the Opara trilogy are THE WITNESS, about racial tensions and late 60s protests, and THE LEDGER, about organized crime in NYC.

Later on Ms. Uhnak, who's not especially prolific, started breaking (successfully as it happens) for the best-seller money that Joseph Wambaugh had proved it was possible for cop-writers to get. LAW & ORDER, combined the procedural with the multi-generational family saga, examining three generations of Irish cops in NYC. THE INVESTIGATION fictionalized a famous case involving a mother accused of murdering her two children (this book was adapted into a KOJAK movie). VICTIMS, like the Opara books featuring a female cop-protagonist, fictionalized the Kitty Genovese case. Occasionally she's even written non-cop books.

Aside from being a great admirer of Dorothy Uhnak, I think she doesn't get nearly the credit she deserves for starting several different waves in crime fiction.
 THE BAIT appeared several years before Wambaugh's THE NEW CENTURIONS, yet it's Wambaugh who's generally credited with starting the wave of
"cops-turned-writers" that began in the '70s and '80s and is still continuing. Further, it was the first in a series of novels featuring a tough, professional, woman detective, yet the credit for starting that particular trend goes to either Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, or Sara Paretsky, all of whom appeared years after Ms. Uhnak (probably because Ms. Uhnak wrote about cops rather than the archetypal hard-boiled hero, the private eye).

I highly recommend Ms. Uhnak's work, and my main criticism of the Christie Opara series is that there were only three of them.



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