Forgotten Writers: Dorothy Uhnak

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.

Uhnak dispensed with Christie Opara so quickly (a much-altered version of the character surfaced briefly on television in Get Christie Love) because her matter-of-fact prose and complex characters needed more room to breathe. Spurred by her editor’s desire to emulate such 1970s publishing phenomena as Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Joseph Wambaugh’s The New Centurions, Uhnak made the leap from tight-focus cop chronicles to blockbuster sagas, including 1977’s The Investigation and Victims (1985), a loose account of the Kitty Genovese murder. Sadly, the only one of these novels that remains in print is the first, the meaty, multi-generational doorstopper Law and Order (1973), which charts the entwined fates of the O’Malley family and their perpetual employer, the NYPD.

Those twin worlds, depicted between 1937 and 1970, are insular ones. The O’Malleys, with their repeating names and vigorous breeding habits, are too busy taking care of their own — personally and professionally –to bother with what happens outside their Ryer Avenue environs or the codes, written or otherwise, of the department. A brutal opening scene sketches the boundaries of the mindset. When the elder Brian O’Malley, a hard-drinking, rough-living Irish cop, meets his grisly death at the hands of a black prostitute he frequents, “I don’t want any part of it,” thinks his brand-new partner, Aaron Levine. “God he wished they were on their way back to the precinct house. It was nearly time for the tour to end. He never thought that filthy precinct would feel like home, but it was where he wanted to be right now.”

Levine’s wilful blindness, which continues as he slides all the way up to a cushy academic position (the reward for his “not wanting any part of it”) is the key metaphor for how people operate in Law & Order. O’Malley’s death is covered up, blamed on a robbery gone wrong. His eponymous son Brian steps in his father’s place, a brilliant recruit on the fast track to becoming Detective Chief Inspector — but not before he also tunes out the disturbing signals that don’t fit the overall narrative of cop culture. As for the O’Malleys as a family, they too doom themselves to repeating the same mistakes, generation after generation. Margaret, wife of the original Brian, grows from a young woman fearful of the clan she’s married into a hardened shell prone to snapping at her children. Eldest daughter Roseanne pays the price of her insolent adolescence when the wild young man she fancies turns out to be a rotten husband (her niece Maureen, the daughter of Brian Jr., will make virtually the same mistakes decades later.) Brian is himself prone to self-castigation about “sins of the flesh”, going so far as to try purging himself at the confessional, but — even after marrying a girl whose supposed job it is to rid himself of base desires — he indulges in multiple affairs.

The sense of fait accompli comes out even in how Uhnak depicts Brian Jr.’s original police examination: “Thirty-three thousand young men took the examination for Patrolman, New York City Police Department. Fewer than twelve hundred survived the written, physical, medical and background check-out. The class at the Police Academy was comprised of the top 10 per cent of the resulting list of eligibles. Eighty-five per cent of them held college degrees. By the time they received their appointments, they all knew they were something special.”

No wonder then such recruits, like Brian, are invited to do as they please; to free, for example, a statutory rapist of a neighborhood girl considered to be a slut — while another man, guilty of raping Brian’s young sister, merits a life-threatening assault. No wonder certain recruits are allowed to take a doctored exam while others cavalierly murder in the name of shutting up a would-be snitch determined to expose department-wide corruption. It’s only when the stage is set for Brian’s son Patrick, fresh off a tour in Vietnam that’s exposed him as much to war as it has to racial divides, to take his place in the cop pantheon, that the presumptions undergirding the system are threatened.

Which is why, when the bad apples have been shaken loose and events mimicking the 1972 Knapp Commission partially reveal the fault line of corruption – as well as the truth about what happened to Brian, Sr. — we’re left with Patrick, having a drink with his old man, his mouth open and holding his hands up. “Christ, isn’t there a moral way to commit a moral act?” asks the younger O’Malley, sick with disillusionment over how the Department handles corruption from within. His father has none of it. “In all of my life I’ve found morality counts shit when it comes to getting a job done. What counts is doing it any goddamn way you can, but get the job done.”

When their minds meet, resolved in a middle ground, Law & Order completes its newest generational cycle, where innocence crumbles in the face of hard-earned cynicism and means justified by the ends. The NYPD is as much family as the O’Malleys, and in Uhnak’s hard-bitten world, both of them — no matter the cost — take care of their own.

Forgotten Writers: The Novels of John P. Marquand

If there are no second acts in American lives, then John P. Marquand’s straying bankers and layabout lawyers certainly pine for a turning point.

Marquand, who won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for his satirical masterpiece, The Late George Apley, has remained a remarkably overlooked author despite his midcentury accolades. Martha Spaulding, Terry Teachout, and Jonathan Yardley have all made valiant critical efforts to restore Marquand’s reputation, but, today, many of his novels remain out of print. This dropoff is astonishing, considering that Marquand once graced the covers of Time and Newsweek. But the Harvard-educated author’s razor-sharp examinations of upward mobility and class trappings also appealed to a mass audience, not unlike the weekly wistfulness of Dunder Mifflin workers depicted in the television comedy The Office. His rudderless protagonists are overly concerned with how they appear to others. They pine for the next rung on the corporate ladder, even as eidetic recall from the past freezes their possibilities in the present.

Marquand cut his teeth writing slick stories for The Saturday Evening Post, not unlike the early potboilers written by his satirical contemporary Sinclair Lewis. He found additional commercial success with a Charlie Chan knockoff named Mr. Moto, whose adventures were serialized in the Post before being published as books. And while this generated money, Marquand soon revolted against his agent’s hopes for steady lucre with an epistolary novel featuring a belated Boston aristocrat named George Apley, whose letters were organized by a fictitious biographer (and family friend) to reveal “the spirit of the man and his influence on the life around him.” While the novel found some Post supporters, more than a few editors felt it necessary to stick with the foundation. Unlike Marquand’s previous novels, only four excerpts from Apley were published. But to everyone’s surprise, including the author himself, Apley was a critical and commercial hit.

In Apley, it is the biographer’s voice, frequently proffering lofty context (“It would be a slur upon George Apley’s integrity to doubt the absolute sincerity of his statement”), that reveals a kind yet bumbling upper-class man attempting to be true to his inner ingenuousness while running afoul of societal expectations. A private matter of baby naming becomes a needless tempest with the in-laws (“It has been the custom in our family…to give the first son of a new generation one of the Apley names”). Apley takes up Saturday morning birdwatching with an “old playmate and lifetime friend, Mrs. Clara Goodrich.” Yet even this quiet moment cannot escape scrutiny. A reverend, also an old friend of Apley’s mother, fires off a letter: “Could you not arrange to see a little less of Clara Goodrich, or at any rate to visit her in the company of others?”

Marquand’s unique satirical approach involved skewering folkways, institutions, and other assorted tableaux while remaining sincere to his characters, even when his characters could not perceive their own telltale follies. In H. M. Pulham, Esquire, the eponymous attorney, Harry, attempts to read his way through The Education of Henry Adams for personal enlightenment, but he cannot discern that his wife is carrying on an affair with his best friend. Later in the book, Harry sees the two sitting in the dining room, but the ethereal affair has drifted into uncomfortable territory: “Bill must have been telling Kay again what a good time he had had, because they were both sitting saying nothing. Whatever it was that Bill said, it made Kay look awfully sad.”

Many of Marquand’s unhappy marriages are, like George Babbitt’s, founded and maintained on an almost conformist common ground. In Pulham, Harry reports of his marriage: “The best part of it was that Kay and I seemed to have a good many of the same ideas — the same tastes in furniture, the same ways of spending our time.” Marquand’s remarkably bitter final novel, Women and Thomas Harrow, offers what may be the author’s worst nightmare: a man defined almost exclusively by his relationships to wives and mistresses.

It is this juxtaposition between marriage and identity that likewise presents a troubling dilemma for Point of No Return‘s Charles Gray. Charles is a banker who commutes from his suburban “thirty-thousand-dollar house — not including extras” to his New York job on an 8:30 train “designed for the executive aristocracy.” Not having graduated from Harvard or Yale, he is sometimes embarrassed because “the New York banks he dealt with most were full of Harvard and Yale men.” He does not know if he will get a coveted promotion to vice president. But his wife Nancy coaches him on what he needs to do and how he needs to act, urging him as she does to turn out the downstairs light — because the neighbors might think they’re having a fight. And he certainly doesn’t want to remember Clyde, Massachusetts — the hamlet where he grew up and fell in love with a young woman from an affluent family. (Just as Lewis set many of his novels in the fictitious state of Winnemac, many of Marquand’s novels take place in the fictitious Clyde.)

Upon the 1949 publication of Point of No Return, Marquand’s six previous novels had sold nearly three million copies; three were turned into movies and three selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club. Some highbrow critics furrowed with suspicion. Edmund Wilson once wrote of Marquand, “We have plenty of novelists in America who make Mr. Marquand’s abilities seem as modest as his pretensions.” In the same essay, Wilson pardoned Sinclair Lewis for similar sins, suggesting that a Lewis novel was “a work of the imagination that imposes its atmosphere, a creation that shows the color and modeling of a particular artist’s hand.”

Wilson, however, overlooked the plain fact that Marquand not only got through to his audience, but embedded much beneath his seemingly slick formalism. Marquand’s characters frequently received the short end of the stick, but he was the very rare novelist to make domestic heartache both enthralling and entertaining. If Marquand gave into the demands of his audience, it was precisely because he hoped to impart his own particular atmosphere, conjured from careful observation with an abundance of Morris and Windsor chairs hiding in studies and lonely rooms, but without Sinclair’s smoky bluntness.

Unable to curry favor with a literati set demanding a refined spice, Marquand spent many of his years serving as a Book-of-the-Month Club judge, sticking his neck out for such titles as Animal Farm and Aurora Dawn for an appreciative populist audience. While Lewis tackled prejudice and a fascist president in his later novels, Marquand confined his narratives to domestic environments. And while this insular territory accounted for some of his limitations, Marquand recirculated his keen insight into the class aspirations that inhabited this modest sphere. It’s a literary injustice that this intriguing comic tension between the twain is now almost forgotten.