As a village girl born and raised in leafy rural England, I’ve been to New York only once – for three sleep-deprived days at the end of a long summer camp season back in 2007. As a lone female traveller on a flying visit, I stuck pretty firmly to the tourist trail in Manhattan and got only the briefest of glimpses at the beat of the city’s heart beneath the tourist glitter.
Thanks to Julia Dahl’s latest novel Conviction however, I now feel as if I’ve had a peek beneath that surface and into the heart of a neighbourhood few tourists are likely to have explored.
Conviction, Julia’s third novel but her first to be published here in the UK, finds journalist Rebekah Roberts working of at New York’s sleaziest tabloid but dreaming of bigger things. When she receives a letter from a convicted murdered claiming his innocence, she sees a chance and, with a little investigation, uncovers a story she can’t ignore.
Twenty-two years earlier, in the wake of the notorious Crown Heights riots, when tensions ran high between the black and Jewish communities in Brooklyn, teenager DeShawn Perkins was convicted of the brutal murder of his adoptive family. No one wants to talk about that grim, violent time in New York City – not even Saul Katz, a former NYPD copy and Rebekah’s inside source. But are old wounds the only reason for the silence? As Rebekah investigates, she uncovers a tangled web of corruption, power and denial that may have dangerous implications for more people than just DeShawn.
I knew absolutely nothing about the history of Brooklyn and it’s complex cultural makeup before reading Conviction but Julia Dahl evokes it so well. Writing deftly about race, religion and local politics, she revealed a world that is as gritty and culturally complex as you would expect a melting pot like New York to be, and sheds light on some of New York’s closed communities.
Rebekah Roberts is a heroine made for just such a setting. Complex and nuanced but without falling into the trap of being a ‘strong female lead with issues’, you can’t help but root for her as she digs deeper into DeShawn’s case. By turns funny, sarcastic, morally righteous and world weary, I really felt for Rebekah when, towards the end of the book, she’s caught in a moral quandary between what is right and what is easy, torn between her loyalty to her family and the truth. Backed up by a supporting cast of equally nuanced characters and set amidst a realistic, living version of New York, Conviction is a novel that feels alive from the first page to the last and is highly recommended for anyone seeking a murder mystery for our turbulent times.
I mentioned at the start of this piece that this is Julia Dahl’s third novel but her first to be published in the UK. Although not obviously a sequel when reading, Conviction is the third outing for Rebekah Roberts and the events of Invisible City and Run You Down are alluded to briefly in Conviction.
On the strength of Conviction, I very much hope that Faber & Faber will publish Dahl’s first two books here in the UK also as I want to know more about Rebekah, her tense relationship with her mother Aviva and the community of Hasidic Jews that they come from. If they have the same compulsive page-turning quality, intelligent social commentary and sharp eye for detail as this book, I’ll probably devour those in two days as well!
Conviction by Julia Dahl is published by Faber & Faber and is available now as a paperback and ebook from all good bookseller and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones & Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing an advance copy in return for an honest and unbiased review.