“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 two previous Sarah Kaufman mystery novels. She holds a Phd in Literature from UCSD, where she also taught for many years. She has spoken and written extensively on the topic of “literature and the law” and has been published widely in other venues, including literary magazines, newspapers, and academic journals.