Written by Julia Dahl — Experienced New York-based crime reporter Julia Dahl has stuck firmly to what she knows for her debut novel, resulting in a well researched and highly enjoyable read which offers a unique take on an oft-travelled road. Yes, Invisible City is about a murder… in New York.
Nothing unusual there, you might suppose. But this murder takes place in the heart of the Big Apple’s notoriously secretive Hasidic Jewish community, a group so insular that it even pays for its own community security patrols, called the Shomrim.
When the body of a woman is found at a scrapyard near to the Gowanus canal in Brooklyn, rookie reporter Rebekah Roberts gets the call to cover the story. Rebekah is a stringer for the New York Tribune – meaning she isn’t on staff, but is called out by the paper as and when she is needed. And this soon shapes up to be her biggest assignment to date.
Rebekah looks on as the woman is lifted by crane, and is shocked when the body is immediately dispatched from the scene in a van marked in Hebrew. The unknown victim is not destined for autopsy; instead, she has been spirited away to a Jewish undertakers.
The body is identified as Rivka Mendelssohn, wife of the scrap yard owner, and as the ultra-secretive, orthodox community closes ranks, Rebekah feels very much the outsider. Not surprising, as she is from Florida and a relative newcomer to the city. But Rebekah is half Jewish, abandoned by her Hasidic mother when she was just six months old and subsequently brought up by her Christian father. And her mother was from Brooklyn – the very borough in which she is hoping to pursue her story – so surely that should help her?
The trouble is, Rebekah has never felt particularly Jewish before and she soon realises she’s out of her depth, which leads her to snap up an offer of help from a friendly police officer who is at the scene. Detective Saul Katz acts as liaison with the Hasidic community, and Rebekah is surprised to learn that he knew her mother too. As Saul goes above and beyond the call of duty and gives her the inside line on an increasingly complex case, Rebekah begins to wonder if he has another agenda entirely.
Rebekah’s investigations lead her deeper and deeper into an alien world which lives, and dies, by its own rules. But who can she trust? Driven on by memories of the bald, beaten corpse of Rivka Mendelssohn, she doggedly searches for the truth. It’s a decision that could have tragic consequences.
Invisible City is an assured debut, set solidly in an area of New York which is often overlooked. Rebekah’s conflicted relationship with her religion and her absent mother adds spice to the proceedings, but it is the Hasidic angle which sets this book apart from so many others based in the city that never sleeps. It’s obvious that a huge amount of research went into this book, and the hard work certainly pays off as the reader is enveloped by Rebekah’s quest – although there were times when I found her on/off relationship with barman boyfriend Tony something of a distraction.
The ending sets us up for book two, where a reunion of mother and daughter looks on the cards. I’m intrigued to see where Julia Dahl plans to take us next.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars