Get Blog Posts Via Email

View RSS Feed


Book Author: Julia Dahl

CONVICTION by Julia Dahl: Book Review

Once again Julia Dahl brings readers to Jewish Brooklyn, but this time with a twist.  It’s the Crown Heights section of the borough, a neighborhood that years ago was totally Jewish and now is an uneasy mix of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Blacks, the neighborhood that was the scene of a riot in 1991 and still bears the violent scars of those three days.

Rebekah Roberts, a reporter at the sleazy tabloid the New York Trib, is looking for a news story to write, one that she’s hoping will get her a boost up the career ladder.  At a cocktail party she connects with Amanda Button, who writes the Homicide Blog, a newsletter that tracks every homicide occurring in New York City.  Rebekah and Amanda arrange to meet a couple of days after the event, and Amanda offers Rebekah the opportunity to go through letters she’s received from prisoners in the state’s penitentiaries who declare their innocence.  Perhaps there’s a real story in there, both women think.

Of course, she tells Rebekah, everyone who writes her tells her he’s been unjustly punished.  However, given that many of these men were convicted in the 80s and 90s, when DNA technology was in its infancy and the murder rate was soaring, it’s certainly possible, Amanda continues, that some of the cases weren’t investigated properly.  So Rebekah takes home several boxes of letters and is intrigued by one in particular.

DeShawn Perkins was a teenager when he was convicted of murdering his foster family–mother, father, and young sister.  At first he protested his innocence but couldn’t offer any alibi for the time the crime was committed; later, after brutal questioning that included the hint that if he didn’t confess his younger “brother” might be charged with the crime, DeShawn said he had committed the murders.  But in his letter to Amanda, he refutes his confession, tells her his alibi, and asks for her help.  He closes the letter by saying, “…somebody else killed my family and I’m paying for his crime.”

Conviction is the third in the Rebekah Roberts’ series, and it’s as strong a novel as the previous two.  Rebekah is a young woman with a past that will not let go, including the many questions she has for her mother, who abandoned her when she was a baby.  Even now that she has reunited with her mother, her mother still refuses to explain why she fled New York and left her husband and infant Rebekah behind.  So perhaps Rebekah’s choice of a career, asking questions and trying to find answers to things people would prefer to keep hidden, is a reaction to the secrets in her own life.

Julia Dahl’s characters are like people you know–people trying to do their best but with problems and emotions that get in the way.  They are all too human, and thus they make the reader respond not only to the excellent plot in this book but to the people in it, foibles and all.

Conviction is a moving story of the collision of people and cultures and the devastation that misunderstandings can bring.  It strongly resonated with me because I grew up in Crown Heights, although I left it years before this book takes place.  I know the neighborhood streets and lived only four or five blocks from where the riots began.  But you don’t need to have that personal involvement to become totally engrossed in this outstanding mystery.

You can read more about Julia Dahl at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.



RUN YOU DOWN by Julia Dahl: Book Review

One of the best things about reading books is that they take you to new and different places, giving you the opportunity to learn things that perhaps you’d never thought about before.  Some people believe that this is true only for non-fiction, but I don’t agree.  I’ve read many novels, including mysteries, that have transported me to communities and introduced me to cultures I’d never have encountered otherwise.

Julia Dahl’s Run You Down takes the reader to the sect of the Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox Jews, in New York.  Rebekah Roberts, the heroine of Ms. Dahl’s debut novel Invisible City, is one of the book’s two narrators.  The other is her mother, Aviva Kagan, who was a teenager when she fled an Orthodox Jewish enclave in Brooklyn for the wider world more than twenty years earlier.  She became pregnant, left the infant Rebekah with the child’s father, and disappeared from her daughter’s and her boyfriend’s lives.

Rebekah, now a journalist, didn’t know until recently if her mother was alive.  Even now that she has been given the necessary contact information, Rebekah isn’t sure if she wants to be in touch.  What kind of mother would walk away from her child?  Though Rebekah was brought up in a happy home by her father and stepmother, she still has questions and feelings about her mother that she both does and doesn’t want answered.  Now the murder of a Haredi woman in Roseville, New York looks as if it might bring Rebekah and Aviva together after all these years.

Because of her coverage of the murder of another woman a few months earlier, Rebekah’s name is known to the Haredim.  She’s asked by her friend Saul Katz to meet with the husband of Pessie Goldin, a young mother who allegedly drowned in her bathtub.

Levi Goldin doesn’t believe that his wife died that way, but he’s been thwarted in his attempt to find the answers to his questions by Pessie’s parents and the police chief of Roseville.  Pessie’s parents are worried that their daughter may have committed suicide, a grave offense in their religion, as well as being concerned that the shame of any investigation would hurt their younger daughters’ chances of successful marriages.

They would rather believe, or at least have others believe, that her death was a tragic accident, that she fell while bathing and drowned.  But why is the police chief of the town so reluctant to investigate Pessie’s death?

The other narrator, Aviva Kagan, tells the story of her unhappiness with her religious upbringing and her escape from it.  But that escape didn’t turn out the way she thought it would, and her life has been a search for belonging, from Brooklyn to Florida, back to Brooklyn, then to Israel, and finally to the Jews in Roseville.  But she has never found the peace she’s searched for; even her reunion with her youngest brother, Sam, has brought trouble into her life.

Run You Down is a penetrating look into the closed society of the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox.  Its positive aspects, its sense of community and family closeness is balanced by its negative ones, its paralyzing fear of outsiders and its unwillingness to show any of its imperfections to the Christian world.  Both Rebekah and Aviva are fascinating protagonists, both with engrossing stories that have shaped their lives.

You can read more about Julia Dahl at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads on her web site.