By William Landay
William Landay is a former Assistant District Attorney and Defending Jacob is his third novel. The main character and narrator of the story is Andy Barber, a Senior Assistant District Attorney living and working in a small town near Boston. He is happily married to a school teacher named Laurie, the girl of his dreams who he met in college. Andy considers himself lucky to have swept Laurie off of her feet and that she agreed to marry him. (He married “up.”) The family is completed by Jacob, a typically non-communicative eighth grader who is somewhat of a polar opposite from his gregarious, overachieving father. Jacob is very average – average grades, few close friends and fascinated with technology and the internet.
Murder happens infrequently in the small town of Newton, Massachusetts and so Andy is called when the body of a young man is found one morning in the wooded area of a park near the middle school. Andy is involved in the investigation from the very beginning, working closely with his long-time friend (and Jacob’s godfather) Detective Paul Duffy. The victim’s name is Ben Rifkin and he is a popular classmate of Jacob’s. There are few clues as to the perpetrator and the investigation moves slowly. The students are not immediately interviewed because of “political correctness” and there is little physical evidence. Ben was killed by three stab wounds from a small serrated knife. There were no signs of a struggle and there are no eyewitnesses. The murder weapon is never found. A data search reveals that there is a registered pedophile living in the neighborhood and Paul and Andy focus the investigation on this man. Several turn of events then occur which change the complexion of the case. A Facebook friend of Jacob’s accuses him of the murder in a status update and reveals that Jacob owns a knife which he often carried to school. Once the students are interviewed it becomes apparent that Ben had selected Jacob as an object of verbal abuse, bullying him and making fun of his eccentricities. The students are also fingerprinted.
Andy is abruptly called into the District Attorney’s office and told that a fingerprint found on the victim’s clothing matched his son and that Jacob is now the primary suspect. Andy is placed on administrative leave, a search warrant is executed at his home and Jacob is arrested and formally charged with the murder of Ben Rifkin.
Jacob pleads total innocence and his parents steadfastly believe him, even as more and more details emerge which cast doubt on this. What follows are a complex family saga, an intense character study, a legal machination and dilemmas of monstrous proportions. Andy Barber has a family history which he has kept hidden, even from his high society wife, for all of his life. His father and grandfather were notoriously violent men. His father, in fact, is in prison for life without parole following a conviction for murder. One of the most heart rending scenes involves Andy finally revealing this to his distraught wife. This breach of trust opens the door for further marital discord as the pressure of Jacob’s impending trial mounts. A geneticist is consulted by Jacob’s defense attorney to investigate the possibility of a “murder gene” which may predispose its owners to violence. While Andy never wavers in his belief in his son’s innocence, Laurie has genuine moments of doubt. The reader is carried on waves of emotion through the trial as the prosecutor lays out the increasingly damning evidence against Jacob. You find yourself compulsively turning to the next chapter, at one point feeling that Jacob is the victim of a witch hunt and a rush to judgement and then abruptly feeling that he is a cold-blooded killer. The author does a masterful job of making the reader feel what Laurie feels as she hears Jacob’s best friend testify in court that her son has a terrible temper and that he frequently talked of making Ben Rifkin pay for his bullying. You also desperately want to believe with Andy that this is a misunderstanding and that no jury in the world could find Jacob guilty of murder in the first degree.
Towards the end of the trial, Andy describes his family’s condition:
“We Barbers were left in complete isolation. If we had been shot out into space, we could not have felt more alone. We ordered Chinese food, as we had a thousand times the last few months, because China City delivers and the driver speaks so little English that we did not have to feel self-conscious opening the door for him. We ate our boneless spare ribs and General Gao’s chicken in near silence, then slunk off to opposite corners of the house for the evening. We were too sick of the case to talk about it anymore but too obsessed with it to talk about anything else. We were too gloomy for the idiocies of TV – suddenly our lives seemed finite, and much too short to waste – and too distracted to read.”
There will be no spoilers in this review. I can’t in good conscience reveal the spectacular and totally unpredictable ending to this saga. The reader is exhausted and emotionally drained at the conclusion, though, just as Andy and Laurie Barber are. I have read a lot of novels in this genre, but never have I been as thoroughly fooled as I was by William Landay.
This book succeeds on so many levels. It is a character study of the first degree. Andy, Laurie and Jacob feel like friends or neighbors by the time you finish this. This novel also provides some interesting social commentary (much like the novels of Jodi Picoult) touching on such contemporary issues as bullying, media exploitation of high profile crimes and genetic influence on behavior. The pace, although a bit slow occasionally (the legal shenanigans, although necessary, always seem a little over the top) is always driven forward by the tension created between the characters. This tension shifts from chapter to chapter: between Andy and Laurie, between the Barbers and their neighbors, between Jacob and his friends, between Jacob and his parents. The tension is always there, though, and it becomes almost unbearable at times.
Defending Jacob by William Landay is an excellent book and I recommend it highly.