Conviction by Julia Dahl is the 3rd book in the Rebekah Roberts series.
The 3rd book in Julia Dahl’s Rebekah Roberts series makes me feel like a schmendrick for not having read the first two books, Invisible City and Run You Down. Good thing that Conviction works flawlessly as a standalone—and a potent reminder of what crime fiction can accomplish when a writer is at the top of her game.
Daringly set in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots, Dahl alternates between the violent Brooklyn of the 90s and the gentrified, trendy borough of today. Roberts is a journalist at the least-respected paper in the city, angling for a big story that will get her noticed for her investigative reporting. She chats with a true crime blogger who has a letter from an inmate who’s been locked up for twenty years: DeShawn Davis, convicted of the brutal murder of his foster parents and their toddler daughter.
It was an infamous crime at a time when Brooklyn racked up four or five murders a day and an overworked justice system handed down harsh sentences to “superpredators”—many of whom have since been exonerated. DeShawn’s story doesn’t sound like any “I didn’t do it” prisoner letter. He recanted his confession, plead not guilty, and was punished for not taking a plea.
Rebekah digs into the story, and Dahl keeps a thrilling pace by showing us the past through several interesting characters: Saul Katz—a Hasidic Jew who joined the police and lost his family for drifting from his religion—and his partner Olivetti are the cops on the scene of the Davis murders; Hunny, a prostitute who is the only eyewitness who claims DeShawn left the scene and has since left the life; and the mysterious “Joe,” giving us a view into the mind of a sociopath who finds “professions” that will allow him to unleash his violent impulses.
After the handyman came, Joe Took the lock from the junk drawer in the kitchen and put it inside a sock. He trailed Matt for a two weeks and discovered that the time he was most likely to be alone was after baseball practice. Matt might play varsity, but he was only fourteen, so he couldn’t drive. Occasionally, he caught a ride home with an older player, but at least a couple times a week, big, bad, blond Matt Lyle could be found sitting on the curb outside the Language Arts building staring at the entrance to the south parking lot, waiting for his mom to pick him up. Joe simply stepped up behind him and swung. Matt must have turned slightly because the lock hit him in the eye. He grabbed his face and screamed, falling forward onto the blacktop. There was blood immediately, and Joe stood for a moment, watching the red pour through Matt’s fingers, pressed against his eye. His screams were high-pitched. He sounded like a bird—caw caw caw!—and his feet kicked and kicked.
Rebekah’s own background makes a great story on its own. Her mother had disappeared—her discovery is the focus of an earlier book—but her cold presence is felt deeply. Most importantly, Rebekah talks and acts like a real person, a professional with chops who is struggling to make it in a tough career. She is tough but vulnerable and affected by the wreckage that violence leaves in our lives. Her drive for the truth defines her, and the mysteries of her own life are the foundation for her choices.
“You can’t print that picture without warning him,” says Iris. We’re on our third round at the cocktail bar down the block. The bartender (excuse me, mixologist), a lanky white boy from California with a man-bun and gothic script tattooed across his collarbone, wants to fuck Iris, so he’s making us elaborate drinks, one after the other. Iris is sipping at a stemless champagne flute with pomegranate seeds floating in it; mine is pisco-something. Dinner is the free popcorn.
“I could,” I say. “I almost did. If I hadn’t recognized him I would have brought the printout to the office three hours ago and it would be online right now.”
“But you did recognize him. You have more information, so you have a different responsibility.”
“My responsibility is to the truth,” I kick back.
She’s seen the ugly side of life, where systems fail not only because people are doing their best in the face of impossible workloads, but because incompetence, apathy, selfishness, and greed put some English on their behavior as well. The exhausted and exasperated get a pass, but the others contribute to the common misery, and she does not let them go unnamed.
Needless to say, this does not make Rebekah very popular among fans of Sandra Michaels—the new D.A. who prosecuted DeShawn’s case twenty years ago—or the police on the scene, or her mother—who is dating Saul Katz, now retired.
I’ve read crime fiction about journalists before—some I like, some feel like an excuse to have a gumshoe who’s not a P.I. Conviction has depth of character and builds a rich world, past and future, that draws on our own and from New York’s complex history. Dahl gives us a view into the life of kids in our foster system, insular Hasidism, law enforcement, and the dog-eat-dog world of journalism while spinning a gripping tale lost in the riots. A great read that not only tells a compelling story but walks us down alleys, past and present, that we might never walk alone.
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Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in March, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which MysteryPeople called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.” He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, also home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture.