Defending Jacob by William Landay

defending-jacobbThis is as much a nuanced family drama, love story, and social inquisition as it is a murder/courtroom/legal thriller. If you can engage with the narrator, whose reliability or unreliability is a puzzle to piece together, you will be satisfied with this warm yet dark story of a community and family unhinged by a violent crime. The author is a former DA who is skilled at informing the reader about the law and procedure without telegraphing it. The narrative is even, polished, and intelligently observant of a community in shock, a family shattered.

I have relatives in Newton, Massachusetts, where this thriller takes place. It is an upscale community of educated professionals, whose children graduate from tony high schools and go on to Ivy League colleges. A fourteen-year-old boy stabbed to death in the park is incomprehensible to this insulated and well-heeled population. As prosperous as it is, there is also a provincial air to it, as like-minded families have always experienced security and safety here, and there is an expectation and history of benevolence. Violence is rare.

Jacob, the fourteen-year-old son of First District Attorney Andy Barber, is accused of murdering his classmate, Ben Rifkin. In Massachusetts, fourteen-year-olds charged with first-degree murder are tried as adults. Barber narrates the story with depth and dread, exposing some family secrets along the way, which could impact the case, and creates increasing internal trauma for his wife, Laurie. Their marriage has always been an ongoing love story; they met as freshmen in college and have loved each other unfailingly through the years. This event mires them in vulnerability and heavy exposure to the media, placing them under a public microscope. Do they really know their son? How much can parents really get inside the soul of their children? And, no matter how strong a marriage seems, a blow like this can undermine what is truly a fragile trust.

Landay has a talent for metaphor and imagery, rendered beautifully in the elegiac narrative. Woven through the story, in the old-school typed transcript of a court reporter, is yet another narrative, of Barber as a witness before the grand jury. How this fits into the rest of the story is gradually disclosed, and its presence is both suspenseful and revealing. Landay's dialogue is crisply cinematic but organic to the characters. His flair for teen-speak is spot-on.

Jacob, who is largely inscrutable, is developed through the eyes of other characters--and at a slight remove, which adds to the suspense. Is he a cipher? A typical teenager? The unknown X factor of Jacob draws out the detective spirit of the reader. The character that really blossoms on the pages is Andy, who reveals, through his agony, more than his contained self-assessment. He is a tormented man trying to protect his family, but his tenacity and inexorable faith in his son may have dire consequences.

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