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.