Fresh Meat: Run You Down by Julia Dahl

Run You Down by Julia Dahl is the 2nd murder mystery in the Rebekah Roberts series about a NYC reporter who's immersed herself in the closed-door Hasidic community (available June 30, 2015).

Run You Down picks up shortly after the events of Julia Dahl's first book, Invisible City. Rebekah Roberts, the reporter for the Tribune who uncovered a murder in the Ultra-Orthodox community, is having trouble coming to terms with her experiences. She is drawn into another murder when the husband of Pessie Goldin reaches out for help. Pessie was found dead in a bathtub and the rumor in the community is that she committed suicide. Her family does not want anyone looking into it and as suicide is a great sin, and may seriously affect the ability of her siblings to attract spouses, her mother and father are claiming Pessie’s death was an accident. But her husband, Levi, is convinced his wife would never kill herself, especially since her little boy Chaim was left strapped into his car seat. As is common in this community, the body was not autopsied and the police have shown no interest in investigating.

Rebekah, along with retired NYPD policeman Saul, (who is also an escapee from the observant community) and friend Iris, begins to look into Pessie’s death. Rebekah very quickly becomes involved in the world of the OTD, or “off-the-derech”. The OTD are those who were raised in the Haredi community but who have strayed or outright left to live a more modern life. These are people who, although they don’t fit in the world they were raised in, also find negotiating the outside world with its moral shades of gray difficult.

A teenage boy in Borough Park is challenging a man maybe ten years his senior to explain why, if it’s okay to be gay, it isn’t okay to be a heroin addict or a prostitute or a murderer?

“If there are no rules, where do you stop?” he asks.

Alternating chapters by Rebekah’s mother, Aviva, the woman who abandoned her daughter as a baby, adds depth and understanding to the difficulties of those who leave their structured community for the outside world.

Rebekah’s investigation quickly leads her to Rockland County and the made up town of Roseville, and then further upstate to a group of Neo-Nazis involved in drugs and gun-running.

Rebekah is a fully realized character who is trying hard to process her abandonment by her mother at the same time she is learning about the Orthodox Jewish community from which her mother came. In the first book, this community was alien, but Rebekah has moved on to understanding. When she sees the wedding photograph of Pessie and Levi Goldin, she thinks:

A few months ago, I would have laughed at this portrait. I would have joked that it looked like it was taken in 1910— even 1810— not 2010. I would have made fun of Levi’s “ringlets,” as I derisively called sidecurls. Ringlets like Shirley Temple had. Ha! Did he sleep in curlers? Did he hold them steady with hairspray? I would have rolled my eyes and felt a mix of pity and scorn for Pessie and Levi in their stupid costumes. Now I still feel pity— for the dead woman, her grieving husband, her motherless child— but the scorn is gone. Inside those outfits, I know now, are human beings, just like me.

As a lifelong resident of Rockland and Orange counties, I am interested in the insular Orthodox Jewish communities. In the course of a really interesting mystery, Dahl discusses the treatment of women, of sex, and of homosexuals without sugarcoating these serious issues. But she also describes some of the fear that is generated by centuries old Anti-Semitism, a fear that is shown in the final scenes to be both valid and terrifying. No spoilers here, although by this point in the book I was so invested in the characters that I burst into tears and wept through most of the final chapters.

This is a multi-layered book with many serious themes: family, religion, love, loyalty – all are parts of the story. But what I really loved is Dahl’s exploration of moral ambiguity. There are few right answers. In fact, most of the characters are struggling to find themselves, struggling to find out who they are.

Samuel Kagan, a molested child who discovers he is gay, is a clear example of the struggle to find one’s self. He is one angry young man.

I’m never going to be normal, Aviva, because of what they did to me. You get that, right? And nobody cared. Nobody cares now. I don’t matter to them. You don’t matter to them.  …Rebbe Taub basically told Eli it was worse to report on a pedophile rapist Jew than be a pedophile rapist Jew! How is that okay? How are they all not in jail!

He travels an even more difficult road than his sister, Aviva, before arriving at a sense of right and wrong. He, like Aviva, will live with the consequences of his choices all his life. But Rebekah, who finally meets her mother Aviva, as well as Sam, comes to an understanding, and some sympathy, for their choices.

“I guess it took actually seeing her to understand why she did what she did.”

“Do you think you understand?”

“I think she got born into the wrong life. Who knows what that does to a person? I guess I can’t ever really understand, but I think it’s possible that if I was in her shoes—if I’d been raised how she was raised— I might have done the same thing.”

I finished the book with the sense that although they might not have happy lives, the characters had at least found some measure of contentment and a possible future.

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Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel Competition. A career librarian, her most recent historical mystery featuring Will Rees, a Revolutionary War veteran turned weaver, is Death in Salem. She lives in New York.

Read all posts by Eleanor Kuhns for Criminal Element.

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