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Back when I lived in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, I was once or twice stopped on the street by a brusque and earnest person who wanted to know if I was Jewish. As soon as I said no, they moved on to someone else, asking the same question. Eventually, I learned that these questioners were Chabad Lubavitchers, members of a Hasidic sect who were trying to bring other Jews into the Orthodox fold. Their world headquarters was just down the street on Eastern Parkway.

The mysterious and sometimes misunderstood Lubavitcher subculture is the setting of Julia Dahl’s new novel, CONVICTION, the third in the Rebekah Roberts series. As in the previous books, Dahl plunges her heroine Rebekah, a scrappy reporter for a New York City tabloid, into a crime involving an insular Hasidic community. This time, she’s investigating the triple murder of a black family in Crown Heights back in 1992, when the neighborhood was still simmering with tension following the previous year’s race riot.

When the Davises and their three-year-old foster daughter are found shot in their home, suspicion immediately falls on DeShawn, their 16-year-old foster son. His alibi is shaky, he’s been fighting with his parents, and a witness saw a black man fleeing the scene. Following a questionable interrogation (no lawyers or adults are present), DeShawn confesses to a crime he didn’t commit.

"Dahl’s book has all of a crime thriller’s requisite twists and turns, expertly executed.... CONVICTION doesn’t shy away from spotlighting the inequities in the justice system.... The result is a gripping mystery with a strong moral center."

Two decades later, DeShawn sits in a prison upstate while Rebekah hunts for a story that will finally propel her out of the Trib’s freelance pool and into a career as a respected journalist. She happens upon a letter DeShawn sent to her reporter friend, begging someone to look into his case. Rebekah just happens to have a personal connection. One of the detectives is now her semi-estranged mother’s boyfriend, Saul Katz.

So Rebekah sets out to discover what really happened on that July night in 1992, tracking down the sole eyewitness, who turns out to be a junkie who was paid to lie, uncovering evidence of lax police work, and getting a glimpse into the dark side of ultra-Orthodox culture. These chapters also offer an unvarnished portrait of the life of a reporter. Dahl covers crime for CBS News, and she doesn’t sugarcoat the occasionally dull and often frustrating grunt work involved in putting together a story --- knocking on doors, cajoling reluctant sources, and tracking down “lost” files from spectacularly disorganized city departments. (Rebekah’s Brazil-esque encounters with New York City record keepers would be funny if a man’s life wasn’t at stake.)

Present-day scenes are interspersed with flashbacks to DeShawn’s life just before and after the Davis murders, as well as Saul’s investigation of the crime. We also meet Joe, a restless, violent teen from California. When he’s not studying at the local yeshiva, he works for a Hasidic landlord who needs “someone with a certain skill set” to keep his tenants in line.

CONVICTION is crowded with these and other characters, but few have enough space to emerge as more than a collection of random traits. A few artful pages describe DeShawn’s experience shortly after his arrest, as Dahl creates an entirely plausible scenario for his false confession. But then the man whose wrongful conviction sets the whole story in motion largely vanishes from the narrative, popping up only when his presence is required to advance the plot. Joe exists mostly as a purely malevolent force rather than an individual with any coherent motivation beyond a desire to hurt and maim. Tension-laden scenes between Rebekah and her mother, Aviva, may confuse readers who aren’t familiar with the previous installments of the series.

Still, Dahl’s book has all of a crime thriller’s requisite twists and turns, expertly executed. Rebekah’s quest to see justice done feels sufficiently urgent, even as she wonders about the fallout from her search for the truth. “[T]he Davis murders were a case sitting in a dark room until I switched the light on,” she muses, and what the light shows isn’t necessarily pretty. And once the real forces behind the crime are revealed, compelling questions are raised about the unforeseen consequences of our actions.

CONVICTION doesn’t shy away from spotlighting the inequities in the justice system. DeShawn’s case is a work of fiction, but slapdash investigations and inadequate legal representation, along with their devastating consequences, are all too real. Nor does Dahl hesitate to show how fear and ignorance can beget violence and hate. The result is a gripping mystery with a strong moral center.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on March 31, 2017

by Julia Dahl

  • Publication Date: March 13, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Minotaur Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250083702
  • ISBN-13: 9781250083708