The Criminalist: A Precinct of Her Own

I’ve long wanted to write about the work of Dorothy Uhnak, a police officer with the NYPD who wrote procedurals before Joseph Wambaugh put his stamp on cop novels in the early 1970s, but the opportunity didn’t present itself until I finished reading the only one of her books still in print (nominally, since it’s a UK edition distributed here in the US), LAW AND ORDER, first published in 1973 and a million-copy bestseller.

The results of these most recent labors takes shape in my newest column for the Barnes & Noble Review, which opens like this:

In 1953, the idea of a single female police recruit to the New York

City Police Department, let alone a handful, was big news. And when the

New York Times wrote up the-then shocking idea of these women

engaged in public outdoor physical activity as part of the examinations

they needed to pass, naturally they included photos of the department’s

newest members — including one young mother and engineer’s wife, born

and raised on Ryer Avenue in the Bronx. A decade later, Dorothy Uhnak

immortalized her beat-walking experiences — which included knocking

down a robber more than twice her size — in her memoir Police Woman.

 By the end of the 1960s, Uhnak had added to pioneering police work

literary acclaim with a trio of award- winning novels following the

career of Christie Opara, a detective protagonist as cool and

methodical on the trail of multiple murderers (The Bait) political protesters (The Witness) and mobbed-up types (The Ledger) __as

she was raising a child on her own and considering a romance with her

brash and sharp-tongued boss. Consciously or otherwise, Uhnak was

planting the seeds for female detectives more private-minded  – like

Millhone, McCone and Warshawski — and subsequent generations of

hard-boiled literary women.  But until the Times reported

Uhnak’s death of a self-administered drug overdose in 2006, her

contributions went unnoticed by a great many readers  — including me.

I soon realized this void was shameful on several levels…

Read on for the rest, and see Ed Lynskey’s 2004 interview with Uhnak for further background.