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[628] Defending Jacob – William Landay


” All gone now, no matter how Jacob’s case turned out. For even if Jacob was cleared, I would never escape the stain of the accusation. A jury could only declare my son ‘not guilty’, never ‘innocent.’ The stink would never leave us. I doubted I would ever walk into a courtroom again as a lawyer. ” (Part One, Ch.8, p.108)

Defending Jacob is an exceptionally serious, suspenseful, engrossing story of a 140year-old boy who is accused of murder. The initial setup is somehow tricky but promising. It opens amid a grand jury hearing with Andy Barber, a former assistant district attorney, being grilled by Neal Logiudice, who happens to have been Andy’s portégé. The issues concern whether or not Andy should have been investigating the killing of a boy named Ben Rifkin. The case fell into Andy’s professional bailiwick, but this victim is a classmate of Jacob Barber, Andy’s son.

Laurie was miserable sitting there. The parents of young defendants have been consigned to a peculiar purgatory in these trials. We were expected to be present but silent. We were implicated in Jacob’s crime as both victims and perpetrators. We were pitied, since we had done nothing wrong. (Part III, Ch.24, p.278)

As details of the case slowly unfold, Landay turns out to be creating a clever blend of legal thriller and issue-oriented family implosion. Te happy suburban wealthy family is soon chipped away by the incriminating evidence against Jacob, who is in possession of a knife and a motive. But the evidence against him is both ambiguous and inconclusive—the rub is that reader is constantly subjected to facts pointing to his innocence but actions pointing to his guilt. For example, the way that Jacob found Ben’s body in the wood casts suspicion on Jacob. So does the fact that Ben was a bully, using Jacob as a frequent target. If he did commit the murder, how could he make it to first bell with such composure? Then there is the pedophile living in the neighborhood who is also a prime suspect. Jacob’s withdrawn and alienated disposition only adds to the suspense because he knows more than he lets on. His father swears total trust on his son and would not even think of his son in the terms of a criminal. But how much do Andy and Laurie know about their son? It’s understandable as a parent he would put his trust on his son. But Andy is as savvy a prosecutor as he is clueless about his son.

Suspicion, once it started to corkscrew into my thoughts, made me experience everything twice: as a questioning prosecutor and anxious father, one after the truth, the other terrified of it.

The irresistible appeal of Defending Jacob is rooted in the very sense of ambiguity—it’s possible to get almost all the way through the book without knowing where it heads and how it will end. Also brought into the picture is the controversial notion of the “murder gene.” Tensions increase when psychiatric evaluations begin to explain son to his parents. Landay also cuts to the heart of family dynamics, exploring the risk that even the most well-meaning, conscientious parents will see their kids wander into trouble anyway. The family connections and the breakdown of trust within the family is depicted in detail and adds a sense of desperation that prevails ever so strongly as the story, with its many nifty plot twists, moves to its shocking ending. The book is exceptionally well-paced and nothing is predictable. A real nail-biter of a read!

One question remains: If we are not wholly responsible for our transgressions, then by what right are we punished for them?

467 pp. Bantam Dell. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]


3 Responses

  1. You see now why every book club in America is reading this thing! So many issues, creepy little clues that lead you off thinking one thing, then you change your mind. The smartest parents can be totally clueless about their kids, but I guess i get that. How about that ending, huh?

  2. Thanks so much for reminding me how desperate I am to read this book!! I’m definitely going to put it on my TBR list for January!

  3. I really enjoyed this book, too. Good twist at the end and very interesting question raised about the murder gene. I saw on Mr. Landay’s blog he has a townwide reading of his book. I thought that was pretty cool.

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