Imagine that someone like Dr. Kildare is accused of raping someone like Brenda Starr, chopping off her left hand with a meat cleaver and leaving her for dead. Imagine that she manages to survive and name her assailant. Complicate it by making the Starr character a glamorous black television personality, Sanderalee Dawson, who has become an apologist for third-world terrorism, a media heroine of the PLO. And make the defendant in the case an internationally famous Jewish surgeon, Dr. David Cohen, whose very name brands him, in some minds, as a tool of Zionist oppression. Make Sanderalee the mistress of Regg Morris, a black educator and agitator who has become the PLO's most effective agent in New York and is eager to use this episode to stir up trouble.
These are the basic ingredients in "False Witness," with the added tension of an upcoming campaign in which prosecutor Lynne Jacobi will be running for district attorney and will be judged, inevitably, by the way she handles this case. Her life is complicated by predatory television people, who are especially upset at this assault on one of their own, and would not mind destroying Lynne's career if it made an interesting show. Besides the crime and the media, she has trouble knowing which of her own colleagues she can trust.
"Be very careful of what you say and who you say it to," she is warned near the end of the book. By then, the advice should not be necessary for Lynne, who has worked her way up to an assistant district attorney's position, specializing in violent sex crimes, in one of the world's major centers of sex and violence, Manhattan Island. She thinks she has learned not to trust anybody -- well, almost anybody -- and she is almost right, but you don't get any points for almost in this league. One final bit of treachery is still in store, about which a reviewer's lips must be sealed.
Still, Lynne has what she calls the born prosecutor's point of view: "that anyone, at all, can do anything, at all; is capable of committing the most unimaginable acts, given a set of circumstances -- emotional, physical, personal, mental, environmental, whatever." She needs this kind of hard-won wisdom to get her through the twists and turns of the plot in this story of a sensational crime and its even more sensational investigation.
The book opens with a crisply written scene of pure horror, just after the attempted murder, with Sanderalee lying on the floor of her kitchen, struggling to stay alive and watching the pendulum motion of her telephone receiver as it skims across the floor. "There was a hand holding the receiver," Uhnak says quietly, "the fingers locked in a rigid grasp. It was a severed hand and a thick trail of blood followed the back and forth swaying motion, in a bright red pattern on her white ceramic tile kitchen floor. It was hers."
If you can get past that paragraph, it's hard to stop reading the rest of the book, up to the point where it ends with a simple, logical and finely prepared last twist of the plot that completely changes its perspective. It is all managed not only with finesse but with a kind of technical integrity too rare in popular fiction today.
Dorothy Uhnak, a veteran of 14 years in the New York police department, calls two better known writers to mind with "False Witness," her seventh book. The experienced insider's point of view that pervades her writing about law-enforcement work makes a comparison with Joseph Wambaugh almost inevitable, and it turns out to be partly a comparison of their respective territories: Manhattan vs. Hollywood.
In his latest novel, "The Glitter Dome," Wambaugh has definitely gone Hollywood, introducing a surfeit of colorful minor characters, cute anecdotes and odd bits of local scenery, from sleazy massage parlors to a parking lot where roller-skating addicts gyrate by night. Uhnak manages to include a fascinating old apartment building not far from Carnegie Hall and a strange bar that caters to joggers, but both (unlike many of Wambaugh's settings) are closely related to her plot. In contrast to the manic-depressive syndrome that is Wambaugh's mental climate, Uhnak's book is pervaded by a sort of paranoia. In other words, she captures accurately the atmosphere of Manhattan.
Even more than Wambaugh, "False Witness" recalls one of last year's best sellers. In many ways Uhnak has written the novel that Sidney Sheldon should have written in "A Rage of Angels." It, too, is the story of a brilliant, courageous young woman trying to make her way as an attorney in the legal jungle of New York -- but Sheldon populated his novel with stereotyped, one-dimensional characters and he let his plot dissolve in needless accretions, pointless anecdotes, and movie-oriented items such as a spectacular chase scene dragged in from nowhere. If entertainment novels are to be judged as works of art, "False Witness" is a better book than the latest by Wambaugh and Sheldon, though the others are certainly entertaining.