Debut Crime Novel Set in Boro Park Hasidic Community

Author Julia Dahl Writes Compassionately, But Misses Some Facts

Opposites Attract: Like her heroine Rebekah Roberts, Julia Dahl (above) has a Jewish mother and a Christian father.
Chasi Annexy
Opposites Attract: Like her heroine Rebekah Roberts, Julia Dahl (above) has a Jewish mother and a Christian father.

By Sarah Weinman

Published May 13, 2014, issue of May 16, 2014.
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● Invisible City
By Julia Dahl
Minotaur Books, 304 pages, $24.99

About a week or so after I published my first short story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, I learned an embarrassing lesson about the importance of getting things right. Scoring a publication credit in EQMM, the longest continuously running, and arguably the best magazine in the mystery genre, was a big deal for me — something I’d long wanted, but refused to try at least until I had gone through several years of trying and failing, trying harder and building up publishing credits. When I finished the last draft of “Boy Inside the Man,” a nasty, brutish and short tale about a boy’s bar mitzvah that culminates in tragedy, I knew it stood a great chance of passing EQMM’s tests.

The story appeared in the magazine’s May 2007 issue. I happened to be visiting my parents in Ottawa at the time the issue came out and brought a copy of the issue with me. My mother read the story’s opening paragraph in the kitchen and looked up. “How can a boy put on tefillin on a Saturday morning?” she asked. Despite months of lead time, I hadn’t caught that error. Nor had the magazine’s editors. For non-Jews or barely practicing Jews, the story had the appropriate symmetry and emotional resonance, drawing from my own conflict-laden Modern Orthodox background.

I stammered out some explanation to my mother, my cheeks flushing in shame, and later to a handful of others who wrote in noting my mistake. Should the story ever be reprinted, I have two options: change the bar mitzvah day to Thursday (plausible, but less likely to be the overt celebration I depicted) or cut out any mention of tefillin (equally plausible, but ruins some key introspection on the boy’s part). What I learned was invaluable: It may be fiction, but it’s the writer’s responsibility to keep potential readers tied to the story. So why not get the details as close to correct as possible?

My previous embarrassment was the baggage I dragged with me while reading Julia Dahl’s debut crime novel “Invisible City.” It’s a book I was predisposed to both liking and judging harshly, because Dahl, a Brooklyn-based journalist who often works the criminal justice beat, sets it largely within the Borough Park community of hasidic Jews, albeit through the prism of her wholly non-observant 20-something heroine Rebekah Roberts.

Like Dahl, Roberts has a Jewish mother and a Christian father, and works as a stringer for a city tabloid, as Dahl once did. But Roberts’s mother is a temporary escapee from Borough Park whose year-long rumspringa produces Roberts — only for her mother to trade her new family for her old one. That inner turmoil slaps Roberts with the force of winter wind on the Gowanus River when she gets called out to a murder scene around there, where a hasidic woman’s body has been pulled out of a scrap pile. The NYPD seems to be deferring to the Shomrim. The woman’s family seems to have a lot to hide. And the moment one of Roberts’s sources utters,“You look just like her mother,” she realizes she has to see the case through, no matter how much she fears where that path will lead.


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