• Review
By – March 27, 2017

Do you remem­ber what it was like here in 1992?” The ques­tion, com­ing toward the end of Julia Dahl’s lat­est crime nov­el, Con­vic­tion, is posed to Rebekah Roberts, the jour­nal­ist inves­ti­gat­ing whether a man impris­oned decades ago for the mur­der of three fam­i­ly mem­bers was false­ly con­vict­ed. The here” is the Crown Heights neigh­bor­hood of Brook­lyn, which, at the time the crime was com­mit­ted, was a tin­der­box — the scene of dead­ly riots between Jew­ish and black residents.

Rebekah, a woman with Jew­ish roots and a host of psy­cho­log­i­cal issues, responds to the ques­tion with a raised brow. She’s only in her twen­ties and grew up in Flori­da; of course she can’t remem­ber. But the ques­tion is piv­otal to her under­stand­ing of the events as well as of those from whom she learns them: the char­ac­ters, whose mem­o­ries — par­tial, flawed, shaped by com­pet­ing forces — aid her in her quest for justice.

First is the pris­on­er, DeShawn Perkins, an African Amer­i­can arrest­ed as a teen, now in his thir­ties. In a let­ter that sparks Rebekah’s inter­est in his case, he writes: I was with my girl­friend, LaToya Mar­shall, that night of the mur­ders, but the cops didn’t believe her when she told them. And the detec­tive tricked me into con­fess­ing.” As a nar­ra­tive medi­um, let­ters are asso­ci­at­ed with inti­ma­cy, with direct access to the mind of the author, and here, the telling is straight­for­ward. DeShawn’s mem­o­ry is seem­ing­ly clear. But is it? What has he left out, inten­tion­al­ly or oth­er­wise? Lat­er, we learn, for exam­ple, that he was in pos­ses­sion of mar­i­jua­na that night. Could that have impact­ed his recollection?

Then there is Saul Katz, one of the arrest­ing offi­cers, and, coin­ci­den­tal­ly, Rebekah’s estranged mother’s com­pan­ion. A lapsed Jew with issues of his own, Saul’s mem­o­ry of the event as well as his belief in DeShawn’s guilt ulti­mate­ly hinges on a sin­gle tes­ti­mo­ny, or, to put it anoth­er way, the sin­gle mem­o­ry of one Hen­ri­et­ta Eubanks. A hook­er with a heart, Hen­ri­et­ta remem­bers see­ing a young black man leave the scene and iden­ti­fies DeShawn in a line­up. But Hen­ri­et­ta, we dis­cov­er, has oth­er moti­va­tions, like her need for a fix, which might have impact­ed what she thinks, or says, she saw.

A black church pas­tor, a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty leader, and count­less oth­ers add to the ambigu­ous, often con­tra­dic­to­ry mem­o­ry box of evi­dence. What was it like in 1992? That depends. Jews and blacks weren’t fight­ing each oth­er. Jews were being attacked,” says one char­ac­ter. Police tar­get­ed blacks and treat[ed] Jews so well,” says another.

There are, in fact, too many oth­ers in this book, too many mem­o­ries, too many switch­backs in time. The whiplash struc­ture may inad­ver­tent­ly reflect the com­plex­i­ty of mem­o­ry, but it detracts from Dahl’s admirably com­plex por­tray­al of race and eth­nic­i­ty. Some of the dia­logue detracts, too, suf­fer­ing from rep­e­ti­tion and under-edit­ing. In near­ly every phone exchange, for exam­ple, a pro­gram­mat­ic Hi, this is Rebekah,” is often fol­lowed by small talk that would have been bet­ter cut or para­phrased. Also, there is some incon­sis­ten­cy with ital­ics when it comes to Yid­dish. Why shmi­ra and goy­im, but Shab­bos, peyes, and espe­cial­ly, goy­ish? Yet, over­all, Con­vic­tion is time­ly and rel­e­vant, a cul­tur­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant sto­ry, worth an occa­sion­al oy vey.

Ona Rus­sell is the author of three award-win­ning his­tor­i­cal mys­ter­ies. Her lat­est stand-alone nov­el, Son of Noth­ing­ness, was pub­lished by Sun­stone Press in 2020.

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