The Hasidic Jewish community of Brooklyn is a closed society, but the brutal murder there of a pregnant woman is a story that must be told.
Rebekah Roberts, a stringer for one of New York’s daily newspapers, is assigned to report from the scrap yard where the woman’s body has been found. Immediately she confronts religious residents who refuse to talk. She realizes that it may prove difficult to uncover what happened to the victim.
Although Jewish by birth, Rebekah is not observant and knows little about the Hasidim or their customs. Teamed up with a NYPD detective, who wears a yarmulke in order to fit in with the community, yet drives on the Sabbath, Rebekah also begins to track down her mother, who she hasn’t seen since the woman abandoned her when she was a child.
The murder investigation seems to have stalled; it isn’t following “normal avenues”. Could it be that there is a cover-up and people know more than what they are saying? Is it possible that the Shomrim, the community’s self-appointed “guardians” have taken matters into their own hands?
Invisible City (Minotaur Books, May 2014) by Julia Dahl is a gripping crime story told from the angle of an investigating reporter. It is a suspenseful, well-paced read. But more fascinating than that is the glimpses the story offers into the reclusive Hasidic society. The author masterfully portrays the community with sympathy and understanding.
“We know intimately how quickly our goyish neighbors can turn on us,” one of the religious women says to Rebekah, explaining their need for privacy. “We know that to survive we must rely on one another, we must support and protect our fellow Jews.”
The woman gives Rebekah insights into the warm and loving family lives in the neighborhood. “You look at us and you see black hats and wigs and you think we are to be pitied… But you do not see more than you see… You don’t see the tenderness, or passion, with which a husband touches his wife after she is niddah” (menstruating).
Not every person is capable of observing the strict ultra-Orthodox way of life. Rebekah comes across Jews who are in the process of “questioning” their faith, exploring ways to break out from the closed community. The further Rebekah investigates the murder, the closer she comes to understanding the motives of her long gone mother.
“You have to be honest with yourself about why you’re doing this,” Rebekah’s best friend says to her. “This is it. This is your story. It’s about your people. It’s about what you care about.”
Invisible City has well drawn characters, believable dialogue, surprising twists, and an honest depiction of an insular society, a society that appears to outsiders as an “invisible city”, except when murder is involved.
Julia Dahl is a crime reporter for CBSNews.com; she writes and edits for the network’s “Crimesider” program. A native of California, Dahl lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her cat. Invisible City is her first novel.