They say to write what you know, and Julia Dahl did. She’s a journalist specializing in crime, has a Lutheran father and Jewish mother, and lives in Brooklyn. And Rebekah Roberts, the protagonist of her debut mystery (up for an MWA Edgar!), Invisible City, is a lot like Julia. Her mother was a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who rebelled, married Rebekah’s dad (just to mix it up, he’s a Methodist), and stuck with him for a few years, leaving them to return to her own community when Rebekah was five. Her mother’s abandonment has haunted Rebekah ever since. It’s the expectation that somehow, someway, she’ll find out more about her mother – and perhaps even connect with her – that leads new college grad Rebekah to head for NYC and a job as a tabloid stringer.
Indeed, it’s Rebekah’s physical resemblance to her mother that gives her an edge over other reporters when the naked body of an observant woman turns up, head shaved, in Gowanus. The NYPD barely investigates and the woman’s body is whisked away, not to the coroner’s office, but to a Jewish funeral home, where her body will be cleansed and buried within 24 hours – no autopsy, no evidence. A Jewish police detective, brought in to help translate, knows Rebekah’s mother, and he smooths the way for her to talk with many of the religious who would ordinarily keep shtum. At first, Rebekah just wants to get the story. But soon, she’s driven to actually solve the crime. As she gets deeper into the investigation and her persona as Rivka (the diminutive for Rebekah), she also begins to understand the world her mother inhabited.
Dahl tells the story well, including a surprising plot twist at the end that you won’t see coming, but is not a cheat. The side story about her mother is interesting, and Dahl is skillful in revealing this religious culture to the reader as Rebekah learns about it herself. However, I’m having a terrible time ranking the book, because there are definitely clunky aspects to the writing. For example, the boyfriend Tony is barely a sketch, and there’s at least one random, coarse-languaged sex scene that feels grafted-on to ensure grittiness.
The book clearly ranks above The Life We Bury, and below Dry Bones in the Valley, but where to place it compared to Murder at the Brightwell, which has an assured, elegant style and is a lovely book for its type (not my favorite type, though!) After much mental haggling, I’m ranking this Edgar nominee third out of the four reviewed to date.
- Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
- Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
- Invisible City by Julia Dahl
- The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
And since I’ve been explicitly commenting on covers and titles, I would point out that Invisible City is a perfect fit for the city within a city where the Hasidim reside. I suppose the cover art features the appropriate city and evokes a certain angst, so can’t really complain there, either.