Invisible city coverWith Invisible City, author Julia Dahl has produced a mystery novel with all the right elements: a shocking and puzzling murder of a Hasidic woman, several plausible and possible suspects, and a modern-day New York City backdrop.

The protagonist, Rebekah Roberts, is a nascent stringer for a New York tabloid. She came to the city right out of college, pursuing her dream of being a reporter, and harboring a deep-held illusion that she might find her mother, Aviva Kagan.

A devout Jewish woman from a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, at age seventeen Aviva began “questioning” her religious upbringing and its predetermined life-role for her. She meets Rebekah’s father (a non-Jew), runs away with him to Florida and bears Rebekah, then abandons them and returns to New York City. They never hear from her again.

Now, twenty-two years later, Rebekah is assigned a story in Borough Park, the murder of a Hasidic woman named Rivka Mendelssohn, found naked in the claws of a giant, earth-moving shovel at a scrap yard owned by her husband, Aron. Rebekah is assigned the story ostensibly because she’s Jewish, but her knowledge of her heritage is skimpy and she knows she’s a nominal Jew only because of her absent mother.

The reader is set up with an intriguing premise in this story of hidden secrets of a closed religious sect. We ride along with Rebekah in her hectic pursuit of “the story,” learning about the Hasidim as she does; an effective technique as we get a front-row seat to Rebekah’s education.

Rebekah experiences intermittent approach-avoidance feelings when it comes to possibly tracking down her mother. When Saul Katz, a NYPD detective who is brought in to help translate Yiddish for the cops/Hasidim, meets Rebekah for the first at the crime scene, he tells her: “I knew your mother.” We’re as unsure as Rebekah if it means Aviva is dead. This feels a bit coincidental until we learn that Saul knew Rebekah’s parents back in the day and helped them meet at a “safe house” he established for Jews who were “questioning.” Saul’s former connection to Aviva, in concert with his role in explaining the ways of the Hasadim, deepens Rebekah’s determination to get the full story and solve the murder.

Invisible City is a refreshing read. The story has a nice balance and tension between being character-driven and plot-driven. Rebekah is a believable character with compelling flaws (a disabling anxiety disorder, naïveté, stumbles a bit in her new job). Dahl writes with authority about Rebekah’s work as a stringer and provides interesting cultural info about the Hasidim. Dahl blends the personal and the professional parts of the protagonist’s life in a satisfying weave as Rebekah uncovers the murderer and ends with a curious twist about the mysterious Aviva.

On a scale of 1-10, it rates a 9.

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