Fiction, Mystery

Defending Jacob

by Cover image for Defending Jacob by William LandayWilliam Landay

ISBN 978-0-345-52759-2

I admit–no one worth knowing can be quite known, no one worth possessing can be quite possessed.”

When Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber is called to the scene of a murder in Cold Springs Park in Newton, Massachusetts, it begins as just another ordinary day in the life of a prosecutor. The victim is fourteen-year-old Ben Rifkin, a classmate of Andy’s son Jake. At first the most likely suspect seems to be a pedophile who lives near the park, but as Andy pursues this lead, the case is taken out of his hands when his son Jake becomes the prime suspect after his fingerprint is found in the victim’s blood. All of Andy’s parental instincts tell him that Jake is innocent and must be protected at all costs, but as the evidence mounts, suspicion begins to take a toll on his wife, Laurie, who fears that Jake may be guilty after all. Even Andy is forced to admit how little he knew about his son before the trial, and not all of his secrets are pretty. These events force Andy to grapple with his own dark family history, and confront the father he has never acknowledged even as he struggles to prove Jake’s innocence.

Although Defending Jacob is in many ways a legal thriller, with all the plot twists and courtroom jockeying that entails, it is also a family drama centering on the Barbers, and the legacy that comes with that name. The trial strains Andy’s relationship with his wife, as does his confession that his father is in jail for a violent rape/murder. Andy and Laurie’s attitudes towards Jake also diverge; Andy cannot admit the possibility that Jake might be guilty, and Laurie cannot dismiss the evidence which suggests that he may be responsible for Ben Rifkin’s murder. There are gray areas of professional ethics, behavioural genetics, and the bounds of parental love. Andy wants no relationship with his own father, but by contrast, his own love for Jake is boundless, defying questions of innocence or guilt. All these issues offer ample scope for discussion, and trying to figure out what exactly was going on kept me reading despite the awkward narrative style of this book.

The narrative style of Defending Jacob is deliberately deceptive, awkwardly trying to conceal a number of plot twists that would be evident if the narration was more direct. At first it seems that the novel is being told in the form of a grand jury testimony by Andy, though there is no apparent reason for there to be a grand jury hearing based on what we know. However, as the narrative goes on, Andy refers to writing about the trial, and copying text from court transcripts, suggesting that he is actually writing about the murder trial, and the mysterious grand jury, sometime after the fact. Andy’s speaking style is usually blunt and straightforward, forming a stark contrast with the more convoluted form his narrative takes. However, even his speaking style becomes confusing at times, switching back and forth between referring to himself in the third and first person. The dialogue tagging was also inconsistent, and occasionally absent, Ultimately, I found William Landay’s unusual stylistic choices to be a distraction from the story, which could have been told well without so much obfuscation.

1 thought on “Defending Jacob”

  1. The topic of this book sounds fascinating, especially the ethical dilemmas that results, but I’ll probably avoid it given the awkward concealment of facts. I hate when I feel like an author is going out of their way to hide the facts! I think facts can be hidden from the reader, but they have to include things the characters don’t know or which can be non-awkwardly avoided.

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