By now, most people have forgotten Kitty Genovese, whose 1964 murder on a residential street in Queens with her neighbors looking on became a paradigm of what's wrong with modern urban life. However, over the years various writers have used the case to create fictional situations; to this small group now add Dorothy Uhnak, author of the best seller "Law and Order."
Herself a former member of the New York City transit police, Uhnak has kept intact the rage she must have felt at the callous "it's none of my business" reaction that allowed Genovese to bleed to death with those who could have helped near at hand. Thus, the heroine of "Victims," Miranda Torres, who's a cop in the 112th Precinct, is given plenty of space to express her disgust as she questions those passive witnesses.
But this is a thriller, not a docudrama, so Uhnak has added enough twists to keep it from bogging down in the angry outpourings of indignation felt by Miranda and Mike Stein, a Jimmy Breslin-like columnist who gets in on the act. Nonetheless, even though the book doesn't present a very pretty picture of human nature and shows corruption shot throughout society, the portrait is in colors -- or shadings -- we all can recognize.
"Victims" opens with a completely convincing enactment of what it might feel like to be the target of violent murder. "She brought her knees up, felt her head fall back, heard one last softly mourning cry, a final animal sigh of despair and sorrow." The scene is barely two pages long, but its impact endures throughout the book.
Miranda Torres is quickly there, taking orders from a superior and drawing the attention of the bystanders who've gathered, now that the terror has climaxed.
"Imagine! She's so skinny, that girl, and she's a policeman." Uhnak relates the crowd's reactions, doubtless drawing on her memories. It's a kind of comic relief, but it's also another focus for her anger. Her feminism is the sort that comes from having experienced a great deal of disbelief, hostility and prejudice while on the job, and the victims here clearly aren't just the homicides.
But Miranda Torres keeps on fighting back, a surrogate for the author who, in real life, also acts as a vocal supporter of the abilities of female officers. A divorce' who has a small son living with her ex-husband, Miranda even fights letting herself become involved with the worldly wise, shoot-from-the-hip Mike Stein.
They investigate the crime together, learning the various petty secrets of Barclay Street, but there turn out to be too many things hidden, and some are simply more immense than either of them can handle -- though Miranda keeps on trying.
This being a mystery story, there are a number of winding detours along the way, but the resolution turns out to be no resolution at all. And although Miranda is probably a bit too good to be true, even a little too beautiful, Uhnak uses her well to sweeten the cynical message of this street-smart entertainment. "Victims" is both tough and fun.