Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #7: Defending Jacob by William Landay

In my quest to read more fiction as part of this Cannonball Read, I’ve been soliciting recommendations. Some (Gone Girl) seem to roll off of everyone’s tongues. Others, like this one, I’d never heard of and am bummed I didn’t read sooner. It was one of those books that taunted me when it was sitting in my purse during the work day. I read it on the walk to work and the walk home. I chose to read it over watching mindless TV after a long day at work (a rare occurrence for me), and even balanced it on the shelves so I could keep reading it while I brushed my teeth at night. I was engrossed. I have one or two little issues, although even as I write them I realize that they do work pretty well within the book.

Defending Jacob is another first-person narrative, this time told using a flashback device that actually works and really weaves together a tight and interesting book. The narrator is Adam Barber, an assistant DA who prosecutes homicides among other crimes. The flashback device used is Adam testifying at a grand jury hearing set a year or so after the main events of the book. It isn’t discussed in every chapter, but helps frame some parts of the discussion, introducing new components of the story. The homicide in this book is an eighth grade boy found dead in a park on weekday morning. Adam has a son, Jacob, in the same class and after a few days it becomes apparent that Jacob is the main suspect.

The book examines many different components of the issue of facing the possibility that one’s child killed another. It’s not a plea to sympathize with the parents of accused murderers; it’s an exploration of what it must be like, both to see one’s son facing such charges and wondering (or perhaps not wondering) somewhere deep inside if he did it. Does a good parent even entertain the notion? MUST a good parent entertain the notion? What is owed to the child? To society? To one’s spouse? Is the priority the child, and to hell with the marriage? Can a marriage survive that? And what happens to the family, regardless of the guilt of the accused, during and after the trial?

These themes are explored in pretty fantastic detail. While Adam gives us the perspective, because he tells the story as a retrospective, he’s able to lend clarity to what at the time may have seemed muddy or incomprehensible. He and his wife handle their son’s situation very differently, and while the author gets very close to some stereotypes of the dad vs. mom roles, he also builds them out as based more in the character of the individuals. Meaning, yes, the mother seems more emotive than the father, but the father is also a DA. Frankly, I think it would have been an even better, more interesting book if the mother were the DA and the father were a former teacher. Play around a little bit with the gendered expectations.

There are some surprises in the book, but none that come totally out of left field. It’s not predictable but it makes sense, which I think is such a great quality, and hard to come by. I like authors to avoid Deus ex Machina – it’s lazy and frustrating. But come on – we also want a little surprise in our books, right? Landay does it really well.

What most impressed me about the book is that it took a premise – the murder of a 14-year-old-boy – and kept that premise right in the middle while not making it the focus of the book. I wouldn’t describe it as a crime novel, or a thriller, but a book about a family in a very, very difficult situation.

Pick it up. It’s a good read and worth your time.

Scootsa1000’s #CBR5 Review 4: Defending Jacob by William Landay

Defending JacobYesterday, I had the good fortune to be able to go and see one of my favorite authors (Ian Rankin) speak at a local bookstore. Rankin talked mostly about his Inspector Rebus books, but also a bit about the genre of crime and detective fiction and the small “band of outlaws” that make a living writing crime novels. Several fans took the opportunity to ask questions about Rebus and the city of Edinburgh. (Side rant: MANY folks in the audience took the Q&A time as an opportunity to CRITIQUE Rankin, his writing, and his books, and talk about what personally irks them in the books. Seriously, if one of your favorite authors is coming to give a FREE talk, how about COMPLIMENTS only? Annoying. End of rant.). One interesting thing that Rankin talked about (after being chastised by an audience member for his errors) was the two Edinburghs in his books — the real city that he loves, with Arthur’s Seat and the Oxford Bar, and the dark, fictional city where the bulk of the crime in his novels happens. Rankin feels that its OK to use real places for the most part, but if he’s going to write about a terrible crime or a horrible part of the city, its best not to use actual names and locations so that locals don’t feel slighted or insulted.

This tidbit made me think of Defending Jacob, which I read a few weeks ago. Defending Jacob takes place in Newton, MA — my hometown.

Defending Jacob tells the story of Andy Barber, assistant DA in Middlesex County (Boston area and surrounding suburbs, including Newton), who is assigned the case of the brutal murder of a local teenager in a park. Some think maybe its a conflict of interest for Andy to take the case — the victim and his son went to the same junior high — but Andy promises he can be take the case and treat it fairly. Until…his own son is arrested for the murder and Andy is removed from the case.

And then the story follows what its like for Andy to be on the other side of the law for once. How the rest of the world turns against you, even if you might not be guilty, and just how far a parent will go to protect their child.

I’m not going to lie — I found this book tough to get through at times. As a parent, it contains all your worst nightmares. But Landay is a talented writer, and he makes the story so compelling, you have to get to the end to find out exactly what happens. And then you’ll have to sit for a few minutes to digest it all, because it isn’t pleasant for sure.

Its obvious to me that Landay has spent some time in Newton. His descriptions of the obnoxious Whole Foods market smack in the center of town made me laugh out loud. He has no love for the ugly and depressing Middlesex County Courthouse, where I’ve served as a juror. Yuck. And he chose to have the murder take place in the once lovely (and now overbuilt) park that was practically in my backyard (in fact, I’m pretty sure I can pinpoint exactly where the murder takes place, just steps from the front door of the house I grew up in!). But other than that, Newton is completely fictionalized. It seems that Landay went the route opposite of Ian Rankin — he fictionalized the bulk of Newton and its surroundings, yet kept the places that annoy and bother him. I guess Landay really has a bone to pick with Whole Foods.

Even Stevens’s #CBR5 Review #1: Defending Jacob by William Landay


Andy Barber is the First Assistant DA, aka the second in command with the District Attorney, so he’s used to investigating tough crimes.  When a teenage boy, Ben Rifkin, is murdered in the suburb he and his family live in, Andy is saddened but confident he will be able to get to the bottom of what happened. Andy is caught completely off guard, however, when his son, Jacob, is accused of murdering Ben.  Andy is sure his son didn’t do it and looks for answers to what really happened when everyone else feels they’ve already found their man. Did Jacob really murder Ben or is he being wrongly accused?

This had the potential to be a run-of-the-mill murder mystery, but I had seen it on several “best” lists last year, so I decided to give it a shot.  Man, am I glad I did because this book is fantastic. First of all, making Andy the narrator was brilliant because everything is filtered both as a prosecutor and as a father. Andy is a fairly unreliable narrator, but not in the traditional way – with a big twist, but simply because he straddles both sides: he fights for the right thing but he is also Jacob’s father. Is Jacob truly innocent or is Andy blinded by fatherly love?  Landay presents you with all the facts, but he doesn’t spell out every twist and turn and lets the readers make up their own minds about the events.  Is Jacob truly guilty or was he the victim of bad circumstances?  I have a definite opinion, but the great part about this book is that I think a case could be made for either side.

Another part I always appreciate is when the legal side of the book is done well. Some writers tend to go flashy and exaggerate these cases to make the story exciting, others are too literal and get bogged down in minutia. Landay hits the sweet spot in the middle, perfectly capturing the often drab interiors of courthouses and police facilities, as well as often slow and beaurocratic processes involved in the actual investigations. He does all this while still keeping our interest in the case, parceling out details and keeping us guessing.

The other very excellent part of this book (seriously, it’s all excellent) is the dynamic of Andy’s home life with himself, his wife Laurie, and Jacob. Laurie loves her family but is more emotional, where Andy is definitely the pragmatic one, and they go back and forth about what the facts of the case mean. Jacob himself is also very interesting – is his detached behavior just him being a typical teenage boy, or does it belie something worse? There’s also some background with Andy’s family that adds another angle to the story.

All in all, I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s engaging, smartly written, and suspenseful ‘til the very end.