Run You Down by Julia Dahl - book review: Believable characters caught up in a maelstrom of lies and deception

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The suspicious death of a young mother takes New York newspaper reporter Rebekah Roberts into the heart of the city’s cloistered Orthodox Jewish community.

It’s an intensely private place where outsiders are not welcome, where dark secrets from the past cast a long and corrosive shadow, and where Rebekah will unearth a story uncomfortably close to home.

Run You Down – the sequel to stunning debut Invisible City, a finalist for the Edgar and Mary Higgins Clark Awards – comes from the pen of exciting author Julia Dahl whose own Jewish-Lutheran heritage was the inspiration for these fast-paced, clever crime thrillers which explore the closed life of Hasidic Jews.

This Orthodox spiritual revivalist movement is today centred mainly in Israel and the New York metropolitan area. Dahl, a journalist specialising in crime and criminal justice, uses both her personal insight and empathy to paint a powerful portrait of the secretive, inwardly-focused world of this Jewish community whilst also delivering a thrilling, multi-layered story exposing dangerous fault lines simmering beneath the surface of society.

Aviva Kagan was just a teenager when she left behind her troubled Hasidic Jewish life in Brooklyn to live with her happy, smiling college boyfriend Brian Roberts in Orlando, Florida. Always the outsider and struggling to cope with both a very different world and a new baby, she simply walked out one day and disappeared.

Twenty-three years later, the child she walked away from is a tabloid reporter named Rebekah Roberts and she now has a telephone number to make contact with the mother she has never known. But Rebekah, who is suffering from both anxiety and depression, isn’t sure that she wants her estranged mother back in her life.

Rebekah’s last big story involved the Hasidic Jewish community and she is now trusted by some of them as a reliable listener. When Levi Goldin from the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Roseville, near New York, contacts Rebekah about his young wife Pessie’s mysterious death, she is drawn back into Aviva’s world again whether she wants to be or not.

Pessie’s body was found in her bath, and while her parents want to believe it was an accident because suicide is unacceptable in their society, her husband is not happy with the police investigation and is certain she was murdered.

Once she starts probing, Rebekah encounters a whole society of people who have wandered ‘off the path’ of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, people just like her mother. But some went with dark secrets, and animosity for the insular community they left behind… a legacy that is more volatile than anyone could ever have imagined.

The second book in what is evolving into a fascinating and addictive series throws up the culture clashes that continue to fracture and damage communities whilst following Rebekah’s soul-searching quest to find Aviva, the mother who walked out on her twenty years ago.

An alternating dual narrative allows the realities of Aviva’s life to unfold against the increasingly hostile and perilous hunt to find the truth behind Pessie Goldin’s death until both storylines converge in spectacular fashion.

Once again, Dahl provides a revealing glimpse into the Hasidic way of life whilst addressing relevant and emotive social issues like homophobia, antisemitism and racism in a city portrayed with startling vibrancy and authenticity.

Dahl is a masterful storyteller, creating believable characters caught up in a maelstrom of lies and deception as old truths are revealed, entrenched beliefs collide, and the action explodes into a tense and disturbing final quarter which will leave readers hooked to the last page.

Rebekah’s next assignment can’t come a moment too soon…

(Faber & Faber, paperback, £8.99)