If you can judge or describe a book with one word or the feeling you have when you read the last page and put the book down, this review would have to be summed up in a “WOW!”
Defending Jacob is the story of the Barber family. The father Andy is a respected First Assistant District Attorney in a small New England town. His career and family are both shattered when his son, 14-year old son, Jacob, is implicated in the stabbing murder of one his schoolmates as he walks to school one morning.
In every review I have read, this book is compared to Scott Turow’s 1987 “Presumed Innocent”, not only for its tense courtroom drama but for it’s shocking finale. With TV courtroom scenes saturating the networks, Law and Order episodes running nightly, we might think, “Ho-hum, another courtroom scene.” Not so. It’s obvious that author Landay, due to his prior experience as an Assistant DA in Boston for most of the 90’s, knows his way around a courtroom. Combine this knowledge with his skillful and descriptive writing and you experience something fine, with much more depth, than any 48-minute show can do.
In a recent interview, Landay says, “...some of these shows are so obsessed with technicalities and procedure and little concerned with human nature. We’ve been concerned with crime stories for hundreds of years. They resonate, even with us non-criminals, because they tell us something about ourselves.”
And the dilemma this book raises to ourselves is, What if your 14-year old son was accused of murder? How far would you go to defend him? Would you continue to believe him innocent in spite of mounting evidence against him? Would you still defend him even if you suspected he might be guilty? The family dynamics between father Andy, his wife Laurie and son Jacob pull us in many directions as they struggle with unconditional love, soul-searching fear and abiding by the law. It also raises the question, How well do we really know the people we live with, be it our spouse or our child?
In spite of the horrific circumstances, there is often wry humor in Andy’s observations (story is told from his point of view) both in his dialogue with colleagues and his perceptive descriptions: “In the grand jury room that morning the jurors were in a sullen, defeated mood. They sat, thirty-odd men and women who had not been clever enough to find a way out of serving...”
Why a grand jury you might wonder? I can’t discuss that without being a plot spoiler, but as Landay says, “I knew from the start that a simple traditional courtroom drama was not going to work.” Hence many twists and turns for the reader.
Adding a contemporary twist to the novel, how can any teen be involved without addressing Facebook? It becomes a critical factor when Andy goes to Jacob’s profile and reads from Jacob’s best friend, “Jake, everyone knows you did it. You have a knife. I’ve seen it.” Also very 21st century is the creative role DNA plays in the plot— a very different scientific use of it surfaces here.
In closing, I might add that it is refreshing to read William Landay’s blog. In spite of his novel climbing rapidly on the best-seller lists (#14 on USAToday 2/23) since it’s release just a few weeks ago, he seems modest and surprised by his success. Previous novels of Landay’s are Mission Flats (2004) and The Strangler (2007). Based on this novel, I will surely take a peek at these and look forward eagerly to his next novel, which he says it is about another ordinary family, this time the survivors of a child’s murder. How do they go on? How do they heal? Can there ever be justice? Sounds like once again he will combine his legal expertise with his sensitivity to families to create another good read.