Uhnak, Dorothy

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UHNAK, Dorothy

Born 1931, Bronx, New York

Married ; children: one daughter

For fourteen years, Dorothy Uhnak served as a member of the New York City Transit Police, achieving the rank of detective first class. She is married and the mother of one daughter.

Her first book, Policewoman (1964), is a partially fictionalized account of the transformation of the narrator (who shares Uhnak's name and background) from applicant to full-fledged working member of the New York City Police Department. No attempt is made to gloss over the frustrations engendered by tedious procedures, the reluctance of citizens to testify against offenders, the use of influence to free criminals justly apprehended, or the hardening process through which a beginning officer must pass. In contrast, however, the excitement of the work and the sense of service rendered and assignments well done is also dramatized, making Policewoman a strong, compelling first book.

Uhnak then introduced a cast of continuing characters who appear in a series of three novels. The protagonist, Detective Christie Choriopoulos Opara, works for the district attorney's Special Investigations Squad. The problems common to working mothers—Opara is a young widow whose husband, also a policeman, was killed while on duty—and the presence of Opara's family, which serves as a support group, both contribute to the realism of the series. The developing personal and professional relationships between Opara and her boss, Casey Reardon, one of fiction's best realized "tough cops," provide subplots throughout the trilogy. Other members of the squad lend depth, color, comic relief, and effective detail.

The plot of The Bait (1968) springs from an arrest Opara unwillingly makes while on her way to the culmination of a seemingly more important undercover assignment. Uhnak's development of the background and motivation of the murderer enhances the suspense and offsets the book's dependence on coincidence. The organization and the machinations of the Secret Nation, a black religio-political gang, form the subplot of The Witness (1969); seen through the eyes of initiate Eddie Campion, the scenes involving the Nation are especially powerful. Elena Vargas of The Ledger (1970) is one of Uhnak's most vibrant and complex characters, and her attitudes and history are fully explored. Vargas and Opara engage in a long, absorbing battle of wills which contributes enormously to the book's success.

Law and Order (1973) is not a crime novel but rather the panoramic saga of a family of New York policemen, their connections, their work, their sense of self and place. The central character, Brian O'Malley, is a study of an essentially decent man struggling to master himself, his work, and the necessarily shady world into which that work takes him. Next came Sergeant Joe Peters, the officer investigating the murder of two little boys, who is the protagonist and narrator of The Investigation (1977). Both the police and public opinion point to Kitty Keeler, the children's mother, as the killer, and Peter solves a double mystery to achieve the book's climax. Much of the tension springs from the contradictory and intense appraisals other characters make of the accused. She is believed by some to be nearly saintly in her generosity, warmth, and kindness and believed by others to be a sensual, self-indulgent, fiendish woman. Kitty Keeler's real motivations and personality are the plot's true mystery.

False Witness (1981) portrays two women who have achieved success in professions dominated by men. Sanderalee Dawson, model, television personality, and political activist, is the victim of rape and attempted murder; Lynne Jacobi, a bureau chief in the New York City District Attorney's Office, investigates the crime, forcing the two women into an uneasy alliance. The extreme violence of the attack on Sanderalee underscores the brutality of the struggles for power and control the protagonists experience professionally. False Witness is a superior novel whose characterizations are especially strong.

The Ryer Avenue Story (1994) is a departure for Uhnak from her tried and true police/crime novels. In this story, six childhood friends bound by a secret, shared act of violence are followed throughout several generations. As kids, the six friends—boys and girls—beat a man to death in the Bronx borough where they live. One of their fathers is eventually tried and put to death for the crime, which the six friends continue to hide. The book follows them to success and in some cases fame, through their tragedies and joys, until their secret is finally revealed.

In Codes of Betrayal (1997), Uhnak returns to crime drama in this tale of NYPD cop, Nick O'Hara. Although Nick was raised by an "Irish cop uncle," his estranged mother is a product of the Ventura crime family. Nick's son is killed while spending time with a cousin—from the Ventura side of the family. At the same time, Nick finds that his father was also killed by the Venturas years ago. Nick's life falls apart, but his anger eventually saves him when he is offered a deal by the FBI to help bring down the Venturas.

Ulnak has her own method of writing and says she has never found anyone else who works the way she does. Hers is not a nine-to-five routine, and often she will construct entire chapters mentally "until the pictures, words, and actions must absolutely be on paper." Characters are the unifying force in her novels. As she states, "What I must know, absolutely, before I start a novel is who each character is at the beginning and who he will be at the end. I'm never sure how the characters will get from the first place to the last, but I am positive where they will end up." Remarkably able to convey tellingly the ambiences of home, squad room, and mean streets, Uhnak is a good writer noted for her mastery of realistic detail in plot, setting, and characterization.

Other Works:

Victims (1987). Secrets and Mysteries (1993).

A manuscript collection of Dorothy Uhnak is housed at the Muger Memorial Library at Boston University.


Reference works:

Best Sellers (1 Feb. 1964). Detecting Women (1994). Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). Mystery Fancier (Jan. 1978). Newsweek (13 Apr. 1973). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (1996).

Other references:

Booklist (15 Sept. 1997). LJ (15 Sept. 1997). PW (15 Feb. 1993).