Becky Masterman on Dorothy Uhnak’s The Bait

Becky Masterman, author of the critically acclaimed Brigid Quinn novels, discusses how Dorothy Uhnak’s The Bait was a forerunner in chronicling how the police deal with the psychological trauma of their job.

I know a man who is a member of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT). In this capacity, he was there to help identify the remains of victims of the 9/11 attack in New York. Upon his return home several weeks later, he told me that he couldn’t sleep and once, when he was cut off in traffic, followed the car and screamed at the driver. Recently we’ve become accustomed this syndrome, called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Cut to Dorothy Uhnak, a New York detective who turned to writing crime novels in the sixties. In one of her novels The Bait, the heroine is a green detective who is taking more heat at the precinct than on the street She finds herself being stalked by a psychopathic killer, and agrees to act as the bait in an operation to catch him. Because Uhnak worked in law enforcement, the book is recognizably superb for both police procedure and collegiality. But more than that, it’s on target for the emotional toll that law enforcement takes on anyone who works in it. This, more than the plot itself, is what makes Uhnak’s work a singular example of crime fiction.

Forgive the spoiler, but the villain is shot dead at the scene. This not before the heroine spends hours lying on a bed in the dark like a fish on a hook who knows that the shark is in the vicinity. This not before rolling off the bed to escape the ensuing gunfire when the villain arrives, and face to face with his body, finds herself staring into his dead eyes. Blood everywhere.

And that’s where we find the reality of the business. In this novel written fifty years ago we’re witness to the aftermath of violence. The heroine doesn’t just walk away, but has to undergo the effects of her trauma. We get the sense it’s not just because she’s a woman. Her boss knows she has to break as others have, and helps her through it. He must have seen it before. So in the closing scene of the book she represents every law enforcement officer. Her like would not be seen again for decades. Those of us who write about the vulnerability of cops are indebted to Dorothy Uhnak.

 

Becky Masterman is the author of two novels featuring retired (but still deadly) FBI agent Brigid Quinn. Her first, Rage Against the Dying, was CWA Gold Dagger and longlisted for the CWA John Creasey Dagger 2013, and the critically lauded sequel, Fear the Darkness, will be published in paperback on 27 August. Find out more at Becky Masterman’s website and follow her on Facebook.