Friday, May 4, 2018


CONVICTION by Julia Dahl (Faber & Faber, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

New York City 1992: a year after riots exploded between black and Jewish neighbors in Brooklyn, a black family is brutally murdered in their Crown Heights home. A teenager is quickly convicted, and the justice system moves on.

Twenty-two years later, journalist Rebekah Roberts gets a letter: I didn't do it. Frustrated with her work at the city’s sleaziest tabloid, Rebekah starts to dig. But witnesses are missing, memories faded, and almost no one wants to talk about that grim, violent time in New York City—not even Saul Katz, a former NYPD cop and her source in Brooklyn’s insular Hasidic community.

So she goes it alone. And as she gets closer to the truth of that night, Rebekah finds herself in the path of a killer with two decades of secrets to protect.

I'd heard good things about Dahl's mystery writing, but this was the first of her Rebekah Roberts books I tried. I was not disappointed; it's a really good read, full of intriguing situations, an engaging heroine and plenty of interesting supporting characters, and a textured sense of New York City.

Interestingly, it also touches on a topic that was part of one of my favourite crime reads of last year: miscarriages of justice predicated on false confessions. This isn't just a plot twist used by fiction writers, but a troubling real-life issue (see the award-winning IN DARK PLACES). Dahl deals with it extremely well, weaving it into her tale, approaching things from a variety of angles and perspectives so that readers get a good insight into how it can happen and the effects on everyone involved.

But that's just one fine part of a very fine novel.

Dahl was shortlisted for an Edgar for the first in this series, INVISIBLE CITY, and I can see why. Her writing flows and has a few wee extra touches that elevate it from among the masses. There's a sense of rich authenticity to the New York settings, including sides of New York of which regular Law & Order or Sex in the City watchers may not be aware. Big questions of race, ethnicity, social justice, power and politics are threaded in. This is intelligent, thought-provoking crime writing.

Journalist Rebekah Roberts is grafting away as a contributor to a New York tabloid that's both devoured and sneered at by locals. She dreams of bigger things, doing more important things. There are parts of her job she hates, and others she loves. After writing an in-depth criminal justice feature for another publication, she gets an opportunity to look into an old case that arose soon after violent clashes between the black and Jewish populations of Brooklyn, many years ago.

A man convicted of killing his adopted family is proclaiming his innocence. Even those close to him from years ago believe he did it. But something snags at Rebekah, who decides to dig deeper. But sticking your nose into old, 'solved' cases is something almost no-one appreciates. And this particular case could put Rebekah at odds with her own family and long-time friends.

CONVICTION is full of conflict, both between characters and within them. Dahl adroitly juggles ideas with nuance and depth. Things are not black and white, right or wrong. There's a humanity bubbling throughout the tale, a flawed, good-intentions-mistake-ridden realness. Good people do bad things. Bad people may not be as bad as you presumed. 'Certainty' sometimes trumps justice.

An excellent read.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 crime writers, talked about the genre onstage at literary festivals on three continents, on national radio and popular podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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