"I don't know anything about Alice Crimmins," Dorothy Uhnak protests, but not too much and not unhappily.
As a matter of fact, it should be quite happily. The paperback rights for Uhnak's new police novel, "The Investigation," sold for close to $1.6 million, just a shade below the record $1.9 million for "The Thorn Birds" and $1.85 million for "Ragtime."
"The Investigation" is the story of a policemen at the vulnerable middle age of his life who becomes involved in a case of two murdered children whose mother is an enigmatic, beautiful free-living gal with mob friends and a well-filled little black book.
Only last week front-page headlines in New York reported that Alice Crimmins was being paroled after serving five years of a 5-to-20 year sentence in the strangulation death of her 4-year-old daughter. Her conviction for the murder of her 5-year-old son had been overturned on appeal. Over the three years of trials, newspapers had played up the lurid testimony about Alice's extramarital affairs and possible gangster connections.
"Kitty Keeler (the mother in 'The Investigation') is NOT Alice Crimmins," says author Uhnak forcibly.
And she can speak quite forcibly. Dorothy Uhnak is a former New York policewoman (14 years), the author of six novels with a police background, and a woman of sturdy build, speech and humor.
"Look, I didn't speak to anyone about the Crimmins trial, I didn't even go back and read the old newspapers. If there are similarities in situation, the characters are all my creation. On the 'Today' show, Tom Brokaw leaned over and said: 'Now, be honest about Alice Crimmins.' That made me angry. I am an honest person."
Uhnak and her publisher, Simon and Schuster, never mention the name of Alice Crimmins in promotion ads or appearance; they don't have to. There are obvious parallels (and non-parallels too, it should be pointed out in fairness).
Everyone who interviews Uhnak asks about the Alice Crimmins connection.
If anyone should ask Uhnak why the paperback rights for "The Investigation" went for $1.6 million and Paramount bought it for a major motion picture if there is no Crimmins case connection, she has an answer.
"Because it's a damned book."
Uhnak does write with the gritty realism of 14 years of police experience in investigation. She wanted to put the focus on her narrator, Sgt. Joe Peters, who must know for himself whether Kitty did or did not murder her children. Like Joe, you have to wait to the end of the book to find out.
The parallels to the Crimmins case happily keep haunting Uhnak and her new book.
"At her parole hearing, Alice appeared with her red hair dyed platinum blond (that's Kitty's hair color)." Uhnak says, "Then on the publishing date for "The Investigation," the New York Daily News ran a picture of Alice on a weekend visit to the yacht of her former lover."
No publicity department could have timed it better. Nor the headlines last week of the parole for Alice Crimmins and of her marriage earlier this summer to a wealthy Queens contractor who owns a yacht where she spent her weekends on parole visits.
Now back to fiction and "The Investigation." What about Kitty? Would she seek Joe out after her release?
"I think Kitty would have other things going for her," Uhnak says.
Actually, the ficitional reconstruction of real-life crimes is quite an honorable profession. Edgar Allan Poe did it in "The Murder of Marie Roget." There also have been versions by such writers as Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Muriel Spark and Julian Symons.
Even during her 14 years with the New York transit police, Uhnak always was practicing her writing.
"When the sergeant read my reports, he would bellow: "What in the hell do you mean by "he had an aura about him?" Cut it down to two or three lines." I was always giving detailed descriptions of witnesses and suspects."
Uhnak, married, with two years of college, took the New York police exam in 1953 and was called by the transit police before an opening occurred on the regular force. She could have transferred to the police department but found that she liked the smaller transit force and was handling the same types of cases - muggings, holdups, rapes assaults.
She was like a blotter, soaking up mannerisms, speech, assorted characters, and situations people find themselves in.
There is a harrowing scene in "The Investigation" when a tough, callous cop toes the body of one of the dead children and then wipes his shoe on the youngster's pajamas to make sure his shine isn't ruined.
"When I was just a young cop, a baby, about 14 months old, was found on a subway track, murdered, in a brown paper bag," Uhnak recalls and the anger is evident even two decades later.
"This homicide officer pushed the bag with his foot and said off-handedly 'pretty little thing.' He did it for my benefit. It was a long time ago, but it stayed with me."
Kitty's hard-of-hearing mother, Uhnak says, is drawn from the mother of a childhood friend. Uhnak remembers that she and her friend would talk through clenched teeth and could say anything because the mother couldn't read their lips.
George Keeler, Kitty's husband, has asthma attacks in "The Investigation."
"All my characters have to suffer a bit with my ailments," the writer notes.
She had an asthma attack when she heard that the paperback rights to "The Investigation" had been sold for $1,595,000.
Her first book, the semi-autobio graphical "Policewoman," was read by "my mother and family." She got a $2,500 advance for the first of the series featuring Christie Opara, a policewoman.
"There I was with 14 years on the police force and only six years to go to half-pay retirement. I took the $2,500 and gambled."
"The Ledger," the first of the Chrisite Opara series, won an Edgar as best first mystery of the year and was bought for the pilot of the later TV series "Get Christie Love" with Teresa Graves as a black policewoman.
As soon as she's off the promotion jaunt for "The Investigation" and denying that she ever thought about Alice Crimmins while writing it. Uhnak will start a seventh novel.
The idea came from her dentist.
I had to go to catch up on 2 1/2 years of dental work and while he had my mouth propped open, he said: 'Say, I read this interesting story in the paper yesterday,' I told him I didn't want to see the clipping."