The Bait by Dorothy Uhnak. 1968. Simon & Schuster.
One of the delights I’ve experienced in my writing career was the opportunity to conduct a phone interview with Dorothy Uhnak about a year or so before her tragic suicide in 2006. I’d read all of her novels, so I felt as if I’d had prepared enough. I needn’t have worried. She was a pistol, very friendly and engaging. You can read my interview and essay here: http://tiny.cc/ge08r.
The Bait won the 1969 Edgar Award for the best first novel, and Anthony Boucher praised it in his New York Times review column. It introduced her character Detective Second Grade Christie Opara (the surname is Czech) who went on to appear in two subsequent novels: The Witness (1969) and The Ledger (1970). Christie was based on Ms. Uhnak’s own fourteen-year career as a twice-decorated detective with the New York City Transit Police. Christie is a 26-year-old widow living with her small son Mickey and mother-in-law Nora.
After her husband died two years before in a construction job accident, Christie now works for Casey Reardon of the District Attorney’s Squad. En route to a big LSD drug bust, Christie arrests Murray Rogoff for indecent exposure while riding on the NYC subway. She sets off a chain of events that brings her back to clash with Murray under far darker circumstances. Three young ladies have been strangled, and Murray becomes the prime suspect.
I like Ms. Uhnak’s characterization, the precise mannerisms and pitch perfect dialogue she uses. She also injects enough gritty on-the-job realism to her cop tale without going overboard or bogging it down. The scenes showing the cops’ interactions feel natural and smooth. Banter and humor surface even when setting a trap with Christie offering herself as “the bait” for the murderous psychopath Murray. Christie strikes up a romantic interest with Reardon, a married man with a reputation for having affairs. I don’t remember how all that shakes out through the rest of the Opara trilogy.
Murray also wears special glasses to protect his lashless eyes and keep them moist. Ms. Uhnak told me she based his character on a real life perp she arrested who wore such special glasses. The perp left his lasting impression on her. She said she’d searched the police archives to hunt down his old arrest record.
I bought my paperback copy of The Bait from a used bookstore for $1.50. I thought our library system still shelved most of her books, but my online check just revealed all but one title have been culled. Within five years of her death, her books have disappeared. What a pity. She was a first-rate crime fiction writer and one of the pioneer lady authors working in the police procedural subgenre. At any rate, I suspect her used and ex-libris books are readily available for a mere few bucks.