A naked woman’s body has just been found in a Brooklyn scrap yard, and that’s news. So the paper sends their newest stringer, Rebekah Roberts, to get the story. When she gets there, she finds herself in the midst of the Hassidic community, the same one her mother returned to when she abandoned Rebekah as a little girl. While getting the scoop on the murdered woman is her job, finding out about her own mother is off the clock. Rebekah’s ambition to become a real reporter becomes tempered with unease with the possibility of solving another mystery – that of her mother’s 20 years of silence. This is Julia Dahl’s debut novel “Invisible City” and the first in her Rebekah Roberts series.
To tell the truth, crime dramas aren’t really my thing. But being Jewish, I found the connection to the ultra-orthodox or Hassidic world was what drew me to this book. Their world is famous (or perhaps I should say infamous) for being insular and separatist to the extreme, and this is what makes them so fascinating. Their wanting to remain that way also forces these communities to use whatever means possible to cover up any imperfections that might make them liable to scrutiny from the outside world. In a democracy, one of those means is their ability to use their large blocks of votes in exchange for elected officials turning blind eyes to their internal goings on and private organizations. So when Rebekah sees the body of the dead woman taken away by a Jewish burial society instead of the Medical Examiner, questions start to arise. Of course, these questions also lead Rebekah to discovering more about the community her mother grew up in, left and then returned to.
One of the first things you’ll notice about this book is the writing style. Dahl first person account is imbued with a gruffness that is well in keeping with the crime-beat journalism scene. While this might seem a bit more hard-boiled than a reporter this young might use, it does work well in the setting. This tone makes more sense when you realize Rebekah has lived her whole life estranged from her biological mother, and all she knew about her was shrouded in various levels of anger and doubt. This is toughness is well tempered with a vulnerability that comes with her youth combined with the innate insecurity of someone just starting out in her career. With this mixture, it then becomes reasonable that Rebekah is of two minds regarding finding her mother. In short, Dahl has brought us a marvelously developed and changing character that acts and reacts to her surroundings and the situations they present with a lovely balance of the expected and unexpected. There is no doubt that Dahl’s Rebekah Roberts is exactly the type of protagonist that crime fiction readers will want to follow for several volumes.
I should mention that Dahl has also done a very good job dealing with writing about the Hasidic community. Often writers have a difficult time delving into a part of society that is the source of rumors and conjecture without coming up factually short. The Hasidic community in particular isn’t one that will open its doors for investigation. Even when they do, their trepidation will often prevent researchers from getting too close to any uncomfortable truths. But Rebekah is technically Jewish and that does open some lines of hesitant communication that would otherwise be closed. My only problem with this premise is that I’m not convinced they would have been quite as forthcoming as Dahl makes them, partially because of Rebekah’s gender. This isn’t to say that they’re all tripping over themselves to reveal their dirty secrets, but one or two male characters did seem a bit more communicative with a female than I would have expected. Still, this is hardly anything that most readers would notice, and I’m willing to believe that behavior among the ultra-orthodox in Israel that I’ve experienced isn’t exactly the same as those living in New York.
With the setting and characters all in place, what would a good crime drama be without a good plot? Dahl’s murder here is what underlies this story, and in the best traditions of any mystery, she leads us down blind alleys and towards her eventual twist without revealing too much. In fact, her clues are so subtle that I was actually surprised to find out who the murderer was, and I’m usually very good at figuring these things out. Dahl does this with a very even pace throughout most of the book, so that when the climax finally comes she can let the adrenaline kick in, and take it all up a notch, making for a truly exciting reveal. This shows an exceptional talent for a debut novelist, and if she can repeat this in her next novel, she’ll be well on her way to being a superstar. All of this is to say that I have to give “Invisible City” by Julia Dahl an extremely strong four and a half stars out of five, and highly recommend it to even people who don’t usually read crime drama.
“Invisible City” by Julia Dahl is the first in a series of books featuring Rebekah Roberts, and was published on May 20, 2014 by St. Martin’s Press – Minotaur Books (a division of Macmillan Publishers). I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an advance reader copy of this novel via NetGalley.