Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99
Rebekah Roberts, the intrepid freelance reporter for the New York Tribune, and sometimes other more prestigious publications, stars in her third book. Author Julia Dahl’s first book, “Invisible City,” was nominated for every award under the sun, it seemed.
Here is Rebekah, abandoned by her mother, anxiety-ridden, related only marginally to the Jewish community — although her big stories have been based within some of the stricter sects of the that community — and mentored in investigative techniques by an ex-policeman, Saul Katz. (What follows is somewhat of a spoiler alert.) After many years spent without knowing if her mother, Aviva, was dead or alive, Rebekah now has a tenuous relationship with Aviva. Furthermore, Saul and Aviva have a romantic relationship going. (That’s a bunch of back story to unpack, isn’t it?) And once again, the Jewish community comes into play through the back door.
Rebekah meets a young mother who writes a blog for her Brooklyn neighborhood about crimes in the hood. Rather than being scandalous or intrusive, the blog seeks to honor the victims. As is often the case, even in the rather lurid pages of Rebekah’s own Tribune, crimes get a paragraph or two, the victims maybe a line or two, if that. Through the blogger, Rebekah picks up a letter written by a prisoner serving life for killing his foster parents and three-year-old foster sister. Of course, he claims he didn’t do it.
DeShawn Perkins was sixteen years old when his family was murdered. One foster sibling, Ontario, survived the slaughter. The neighborhood was crying for blood because the parents were model citizens, caring contributors to their African-American community, and upstanding foster parents for many children. It was also known that they were having problems with DeShawn. It was a hop, skip, and jump for the police to narrow their investigation down to DeShawn. Claiming they had a confession and an eyewitness, the police put DeShawn away.
Although fearing the case has a hopeless glaze to it, Rebekah nevertheless dutifully tracks down DeShawn’s girlfriend at the time, who flip-flopped on whether she was his alibi the night of the murder. Then she tracks down the eyewitness. Whoa, Nellie, now things are really getting interesting! To add to the mighty-small-world nature of the case, Saul Katz, who was a young detective at the time, was one of the original investigators. Saul was pretty much the token Jewish cop in his precinct. The Jewish and African-American neighborhoods abutted each other. There was tension, strife, and rioting to mark their territories. Deshawn’s parents were part of a movement to try to better their neighborhood and its relationship with the Jewish community. Although he had rejected his strict sect and their teachings, Saul was the point person for the police to communicate with the Jews.
Rebekah’s first-person story intertwines with Saul’s third-person story set in the 1990s. Thankfully, one does not obfuscate the other, as sometimes happens with interpolated stories. Dahl writes clearly and without rose-colored glasses about the prior time. It is that unsentimental look at the 1990s that is the highlight of “Conviction.”
Dahl has made Rebekah into a warm and human character. She has personal difficulties and works on facing them square on (with the help of her friend Iris). Dahl teaches her readers about the various Jewish sects, but even without that lesson, her stories and setting would be worthwhile.