Beneath the Black Hats and the Wigs

Book Review of Invisible City” by Julia Dahl.

a9db9-invisible2bcityThe police just found a naked woman’s body 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 exact same Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community 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 is tempered with the unease and possibility of solving her own mystery, her mother’s 20 years of silence.

To tell the truth, crime novels aren’t really my thing. However, being an American Jew living in Israel, I found the connection to the Ultra-Orthodox (aka Hassidic or Haredi) Jewish world drew me to this book. Theirs is a famous (or perhaps infamous) community, known for being insular and separatist to the extreme and that makes them fascinating. Their desire to remain separate also forces these communities to use whatever means possible to hide any imperfections that might make them liable to outside scrutiny. In a democracy, one means they use is their large blocks of practically guaranteed votes to elected officials who promise to ignore their internal goings on and organizations. When Rebekah sees the body of the dead woman taken away by a Jewish burial society instead of the Medical Examiner, questions arise. Of course, these lead Rebekah to discovering more about her mother’s community, and those who attempt to leave it.

Dahl imbues her first person account with a gruffness that is well in keeping with the crime-beat journalism scene. While this might seem a touch too hard-boiled for such a young and new reporter, 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, with most of her feelings 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 and intense motivation of someone embarking on their dream 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 (see below).

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. This community in particular hates opening its doors to 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 I’m not convinced they would have been quite as forthcoming, partially because of Rebekah’s gender. Not 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 expected. Still, this is hardly anything that most readers will notice, and I’m willing to believe that behavior among the ultra-orthodox in Israel that I’ve experienced in Israel isn’t 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 early on). 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 Dahl can repeat this in her next novel, she’ll be well on her way to becoming a superstar. All of this is to say that I have to give this book an extremely strong four and a half stars out of five, and highly recommend it, including people who don’t usually read crime fiction.


“Invisible City” by Julia Dahl, the first of her Rebekah Roberts’s novels, published on May 20, 2014 by St. Martin’s Press – Minotaur Books is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) eBooks and audiobooks, the website, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literacy), or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an advance reader copy of this novel via NetGalley. This is a version of my Times of Israel Blog review, which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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