Defending Jacob
by William Landay

A Book Review
by Kathy Coogan

In the 2012 novel, Defending Jacob, former Prosecutor William Landay orchestrates a legal drama, a family drama, a psychological thriller and a commentary on criminal justice as influenced by “new” science and modern social media.

The narrator is Andy Barber, First District Attorney in affluent Newton, Massachusetts. A fourteen year old boy is stabbed to death, and Andy and his staff investigate. Andy and wife Laurie are stunned when their son Jacob, a classmate of the victim, is indicted and they begin the heart-breaking process of Defending Jacob at all costs.

Though the title character is Jacob - the son, the story begins and ends with Andy - the father. The conflict is viewed through his eyes, filtered through his dark origins, altered by his secrets and manipulated by his actions. We begin and end in a Grand Jury, seeking information. From there we are guided through the torment of this family to the eventual revelations about secrets, denial and parental responsibility.

Evidence mounts against Jacob. On Facebook, Jacob’s peers say he is an odd boy, detached and inappropriate, possibly capable of murder, possessing a knife, interested in graphically violent websites. The murder victim was a bully who targeted Jacob. The body was found on Jacob’s route to school. Thus Jacob has motive, method and opportunity.

Despite their hopes for his innocence, Andy and Laurie privately agonize over traits they ignored in their only son. Andy is finally forced to reveal to his wife the violent natures of his own father and grandfather. Is it possible that Jacob carries a gene predisposing him to violence: a Murder Gene? To find out, Andy must confront his long-lost father in prison to collect DNA.

The courtroom drama ebbs and flows, and as in real trials, is sometimes drawn out and repetitive. Andy’s emotional detachment, born of a lifetime of withholding his true self, prevents the reader from “knowing” him. Laurie’s deterioration, as she begins to doubt her son’s innocence and to assume her own guilt, is secondary to Andy’s single-minded focus on defending Jacob. She fades, physically and emotionally as she struggles with her culpability as a mother.

No matter the outcome of the trial, this family has been shattered and it is only the unforeseen ending which illustrates how truly shattered it is.

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