Mystery Thursday: Dorothy Uhnak, Policewoman and Writer

Thursday, January 03, 2013 by Emma

dorothy uhnak"This is what I will forever hold against men in general: that they have carefully selected out and inoculated intelligent women with a sense of specialness: you're not like the other girls. Damn, for a woman, you sure are bright as hell."

—Dorothy Uhnak

Dorothy Uhnak (1930–2006) was best known as an author of crime novels and police procedurals. Her gritty, urban stories were inspired by the real thing: Uhnak worked as a policewoman in New York City for well over a decade and was twice decorated for bravery. The photo above shows Uhnak with Police Chief Thomas O’Rourke, during the ceremony promoting her to detective in the New York City Transit Police Department.

Uhnak recorded her experiences in a memoir, describing incidents such as her arrest of an armed mugger—a 125-pound woman taking down a large man. When she turned to fiction, Uhnak blazed a trail by creating tough female crimefighters. She’s often credited with opening a path for other hard-hitting female crime writers such as Patricia Cornwell, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller. 

As a tomboy growing up in the Bronx, Uhnak spent much of her time helping out in the 46th Precinct Station House, next door to her home, doing typing and other office tasks. After graduating from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, she joined the transit police.

Her first novel, The Bait, won the Edgar Award for the best first mystery novel of 1968 and introduced New York Police Department detective Christie Opara, who also starred in Uhnak’s next two novels, The Witness (1969) and The Ledger (1970). In 1973, Uhnak published the book that would make her famous: Law and Order. Modeled after The Godfather, the book spans three generations of a police department family. Her next novel, The Investigation (1977), dove into the case of a woman who murdered her two young children. Both of these blockbusters were later adapted for television.

In a 1977 interview with the New York Times, Uhnak said of her work, “I write about very hard situations and in a strong way.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. 

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