William Landay – “Defending Jacob”

Defending JacobDefending Jacob is straightforward yet complex. It’s linear, in one way, yet chews back on itself in another. The last few pages put every scene before it back in play for re-evaluation. The story leads you gently, one way, and then messes around with your assumptions. The title is simple and clean and yet has layers of depth—at least, once you reach the final few pages and see what’s about to happen.

Our narrator is Andy Barber, the assistant district attorney in a suburban Massachusetts county. The first-person account of the events is interspersed with transcripts from court proceedings. A deft device. It works. From the courtroom back-and-forth, we know early on that Andy Barber has found a way to inject himself deep into a case involving the murder of a young boy who was a classmate of his 14-year-old son, Jacob. We know that Andy has messed up but we are not clear exactly what he’s done or how far events might have spiraled out of control.

Andy Barber is so sure his son is not responsible for the murder that he takes a few matters (potential evidence) into his own hands. And yet he’s still quite likeable, ordinary, Everyman. He is sure. We are sure. Andy Barber doesn’t believe Jacob played a role and, in fact, Andy helps us see that the prosecutors are being quite sloppy in sorting through leads and possible suspects. Why not make sure? Indeed, why not? This is your son and he may have a few problems and issues, but he certainly wasn’t involved in this heinous act. Was he?

Defending Jacob revolves neatly around relationships—between Andy and his wife Laurie, between Andy and his son, between Andy and his in-court opponent, Neal Logiudice. And, finally, between Andy and his estranged father. Andy’s take on these relationships is critical to the storytelling and Landay does a masterful job of letting us buy into Andy’s evaluations of the strains and difficulties in each. Andy is so frank with us—revealing, for instance, that he kept key information from his wife—that our trust in him grows.

Is the story a bit long? Perhaps. Andy’s father seems more caricature—too irascible—than the others. The whole “behavioral genetics” theme could have been tightened up. These are quibbles in a well-constructed story. The structure of Defending Jacob is really quite brilliant.

The story is told in a calm, straightforward style. Like the best crime-court-mystery thrillers, not everything is quite as it seems. Like the best crime-court-mystery thrillers, this one comes down to the last few pages. Defending Jacob is well executed and taut, down to the last. (This review is number 6,746 or so on Amazon and the overall rating stands at 4.5 stars; isn’t that enough “evidence?”) I “read” this story on Audio CD, by the way, and the narration by Grover Gardner was outstanding.

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