“The New York Police Department hired its first female detective in 1912, but when Dorothy Uhnak joined in 1953, women were still a minority,” says UNE lecturer in writing and literary researcher Dr Lili Pâquet, who has written a book on women working in the criminal system who became crime writers.

The book includes well-known writers like forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs, but Lili says the lesser-known Dorothy Uhnak, the earliest example she could find, was a real trailblazer and fascinating character herself.

“During her time as a serving officer, Uhnak was decorated twice for arrests in which she single-handedly kayoed a six-foot tall man who committed numerous sexual assaults, and performed a judo flip on a mugger. All the more impressive for a woman of around five feet, five inches tall!” Lili says.

Yet she struggled with gaining equality and recognition in a male-dominated system.

“After fourteen years Uhnak was not promoted, in fact, she was demoted upon her return from maternity leave,” Lili says.

Women could finally sit the sergeant’s examination in 1964 – after a successful lawsuit. It was the same year Uhnak published her memoir, ‘Policewoman’, a ground-breaking work tracking the challenges of integrating female officers into the NYPD.

In 1967, when the NYPD promoted its first two female lieutenants – again after a lawsuit – Uhnak left to pursue a writing career, developing a protagonist, NYPD detective Christie Opara, closely resembling Uhnak herself: a tough female detective and a single mother, who shunned gun violence and spoke back to her superiors.

Uhnak’s books struck a chord with many readers. She received and kept many letters agreeing the portrayal of an unequal justice system matched experiences of their own.

Book: ‘Crime Fiction from a Professional Eye’ by Dr Lili Pâquet