As a non-skier on a recent week’s family skiing holiday, I found myself halfway up a Swiss alp with time on my hands.
Recreational options consisted of hiking (limited due to heavy snowfalls), browsing the local gift shops (also limited — there were only two, both offering the same gifts), and reading.
I had come prepared, with Julia Dahl’s Conviction and Gray Mountain, a legal thriller by John Grisham published in 2014, but also, in a fit of wild optimism, George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I reasoned that the Dahl and the Grisham — which, together, comprised a total of around 800 pages — might last me the week, and I wouldn’t have to bother with the formidably heavyweight Victorian classic.
My mistake — the two thrillers were polished off in about a day-and-a-half, leaving me in the company of Dorothea Brooke for the rest of the vacation.
All of which is to say that both Conviction and Gray Mountain have that unputdownable quality thriller writers strive for.
Dahl’s book is her third to feature young Jewish reporter, Rebekah Roberts. In a previous outing, Roberts investigated the murder of a Chasidic woman in New York’s Borough Park district.
This time, she attempts to clear the name of a black man 25 years after he was convicted of a triple murder at the time of the Crown Heights riots in New York.
Roberts despises herself for working on a sleazy New York tabloid and sees the story as a way of making her name as a serious journalist. But her investigations uncover shocking secrets around the three days of violence between Brooklyn’s black community and the local Strictly Orthodox Jews in the summer of 1991.
Matters are complicated by the fact that one of the cops who investigated the murder case is now the partner of Roberts’s mother.
The story rattles along, bolstered by flashbacks to that steamy summer, and the gradual closing in on the killer makes for good, tense reading.
Dahl herself is a crime journalist so there’s no lack of authenticity. Comparing Conviction and Gray Mountain, it’s easy to see the common elements. Both feature strong young women trying to establish themselves in their professions (Grisham’s heroine is, of course, a lawyer) who both put their careers — and lives — at risk in a quest to right historical injustices.
And if there’s something formulaic to both books, in Dahl’s case it is to her credit that she executes it so well.
As for Middlemarch — at the rate I’m going it could easily last me until next year’s holiday.
Convicion is published by Faber & Faber (£7.99)