Friday, 29 August 2014

Defending Jacob by William Landay, 2012

© Random House
This is not a conventional review. Rather, these are my observations of a book, a legal thriller, which offers a profound insight into how bad things can happen all of a sudden to good people, happy families, and destroy their seemingly pleasant lives. 

In recent years, few novels have touched me as deeply and compellingly as Defending Jacob by William Landay. I think it is because as a father of a seventeen-year old teenager I could feel a sense of empathy for Andrew Barber and his wife, Laurie, whose fourteen-year old son, Jacob, is accused of murdering his classmate in the beautiful Cold Spring Park in a Massachusetts suburb. Jacob is like any teenager, reclusive and rebellious, and mostly preoccupied with his thoughts, his cellphone, and his laptop. The question is what lies beneath.

I read books with a certain level of detachment. I try not to get involved in what transpires between the covers of a book, however gut-wrenching the story may be. But sometimes it’s not possible to be a mere witness to the emotional drama unfolding in the pages in front of you. You leap right into the narrative because somewhere in the back of your head you feel you have a stake too, in this case knowing what happens to the once happy Barber family.


If you are a devoted husband and a doting father, you’ll feel the pain of Andy Barber who refuses to admit to himself that his son could be guilty because he loves him deeply and because he owes it to him. It’s a terrible choice for any father to make, especially if, like Andy, you are a respected and a successful assistant district attorney who has stood by his conviction that the law must take its course no matter who the suspect is. You know you have to stick by your son because you’re responsible for him and because he is your flesh and blood. Hell with conviction and all that. You know you are wrong but you also know you are right.

© www.williamlanday.com
As I read through the book, I found myself frequently walking beside Andy, who is forced to go on leave owing to possible conflict of interest, and watch him do everything in his capacity to defend his son and prove he is innocent. He hires a close acquaintance to fight the case. For me, this is Andy’s story more than Jacob’s; the father is the pivot around which the son’s fate hinges.

Let’s not forget Laurie Barber. Once the cynosure of all eyes, Andy’s beautiful wife slowly disintegrates, first with the onslaught of her son’s indictment and the possibility of his guilt and then when, after years of a beautiful love marriage, she learns from Andy that his side of the family has a history of violent behaviour. She feels betrayed. In many ways Laurie suffers more than Andy because, unlike her husband, she is willing to acknowledge that their son could be the murderer of his fellow eighth grader Benjamin Rifkin. She feels responsible for Jacob and that they must have done something wrong raising him.


What Laurie Barber goes through would be any mother’s worst nightmare, as defending Jacob takes its toll on her and the family she has loved and cherished.

Final word
William Landay has produced a cracker of a novel. The suspense is intense, in a non-brutal way, and consistent throughout the 448 pages, alternating between the Barbers’ isolated existence at home and shamed public life in the courtroom, and finally culminating in an unforeseen end.

Defending Jacob is a legal thriller in every sense of the term as William takes the reader through a realistic and gripping homicide investigation and judicial process complete with jury and grand jury, and courtroom scenes. He explains the legal terms including how the system works as well as the theory of a murder gene that the prosecutor is more than keen to bring up in court. I found that aspect of the book very interesting. Can someone commit a crime because it’s in his or her DNA? Is it admissible as evidence in court? The writer offers plausible answers.

The author’s writing style is engaging and he keeps you engrossed with twists and turns every few pages so much so that you feel compelled to finish the book in two sittings as I did.


The author
William Landay was an assistant district attorney in Boston before he took to writing fiction and authored the award-winning Mission Flats and The Strangler—the latest in a long line of seasoned attorneys turned successful writers. He brings his firsthand experience as a legal brain to bear upon his third novel, Defending Jacob.

Earlier this month, when I wrote to William requesting an interview based on this novel, he replied saying that he was too busy at the moment to answer—he is working on his next suspense novel among other things—and, very thoughtfully, invited me to quote freely from a similar interview on his website. I thought that wouldn’t be right, but you can read it here.

26 comments:

  1. This sounds great Prashant and I had not heard of it - as a doting uncle, it is always a problem for me with stories that put children in bad situations but this sounds like a real exception - thanks chum.

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    1. Sergio, thank you. I usually avoid reading suspense novels involving children but this book isn't one of those. It's a tale about a nice little family that suddenly finds itself in the middle of a crisis; the kind we often read about in the papers.

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  2. This sounds like a gut-wrenching read, Prashant. It's hard for me to read books of this sort. I am a doting mother and grandmother and find it difficult to go down this road even if it is fiction. But thanks for the review anyway, I'm always ready to learn about authors I haven't read or even heard about. Lawyers often make good fiction writers. Why is that do you suppose? :)

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    1. Yvette, thank you. Emotionally, it is gut-wrenching, but that is about all. The author has handles the subject very tactfully. He doesn't go overboard with the situation affecting the Barbers. I agree, lawyers do make very good writers; perhaps, because they get a broad perspective while dealing with all kinds of legal cases in and out of the courtroom.

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  3. This is a beautiful and compelling review. It's very clear that the book resonated with you, and I confess that I got caught up in your own enthusiasm. I'm not usually attracted to legal thrillers, but you've made a stunning case for this one, and I'm tempted to give it a try.

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    1. Kelly, thank you. I admit that I get carried away by good books and films which reflects in my views and reviews. However, I stick to them because that's how strongly I feel about them. I hope you give this book a try and when you do, I'd love to know what you thought of it.

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  4. As a teenager, I read a couple dozen Perry Mason legal mysteries so a book like DEFENDING JACOB would interest me. Nice review!

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    1. George, thank you. I think you'll like DEFENDING JACOB. I haven't read a Perry Mason in a couple of years though I have read short stories by Erle Stanley Gardner.

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  5. Very good review Prashant. It does seem you got a lot involved with the book. I don't quite like legal thrillers but this one seems very interesting.

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    1. Neer, thank you. I'm glad you liked it. Legal thrillers are often well-crafted family dramas and you'll probably change your opinion about them when you read a book like this one.

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  6. New to me. I certainly wouldn't want to be the father (or mother in this case).

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    1. Mystica, no one would and I'm glad it was just a fictional story though these things are known to happen in real life.

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  7. I'll definitely have to give this one a look see. I remember how strongly I was touched by Pet Sematary, from Stephen King. My son was just the age of the boy in the story and it was really tough reading.

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    1. Charles, you won't regret reading this novel. I'm afraid I have never read Stephen King but I hope to try his fiction someday.

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  8. I think I've read about this one on the Mysteries and More blog - you and Bill both do a very good job of describing how good the book is. It sounds quite wrenching - I think I might wait till my children are further past the ages in the book and then try it.

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    1. Moira, thanks for letting me know about Bill's review of this book. I wondered if he'd read and reviewed it on his blog. I seem to have missed it earlier. Bill's review is more comprehensive particularly from the standpoint of a practicing lawyer whose understanding of the book is obviously superior to mine. Thanks also for your kind words. The book raises sensitive issues and makes you feel uncomfortable.

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  9. Prashant, this sounds like a very good book but I don't know if I would enjoy it. I usually do get involved in the emotions of a story. Your review is very well written and lets me know what to expect. The way such a trauma pulls a family apart would be heartbreaking to read. I am undecided. Thanks for this review.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. DEFENDING JACOB is, indeed, heartbreaking and you feel for the parents. I'm quite sure you'll like it, especially since you read a cross-section of suspense and mystery novels. There are some interesting elements in the story that I didn't highlight for fear of spoiling it for those who haven't read it. Bill reviewed the book in April this year.

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  10. Prashant: Thanks for your kind words. I am glad you enjoyed the book. I found myself thinking too much about the plot to become as wrapped up in the story as you found yourself.

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    1. Bill, you're most welcome. I'm glad Moira brought your review of the book to my notice. As a lawyer yourself, I can see why the plot would interest you. I often tend to focus on the story. DEFENDING JACOB is among the better novels I have read in a couple of years. I hope to read William Landay's other two books.

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    1. Patti, it was absorbing from start to end. I thought the novel was intense and moved at an easygoing pace.

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  12. Hey Prashant,

    I started this book a long time ago but I couldn't bring myself to finish it. It is very intense and very involved thriller. I'm not a big fan of legal thrillers so....I thought it best to skip this one. I have read and enjoyed the author's first book, Mission Flats and enjoyed it very much. To echo Tracy, your review is very good and thorough. Thanks.

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    1. Keishon, thank you. I read legal thrillers occasionally and I was glad I picked up this one. It has made me want to read more from the genre. The book was very intense, I agree. I intend to read the other two novels.

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  13. Another one to think about! I've heard of it and the author but not tried him.

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    1. Col, I hope you read DEFENDING JACOB. You will like it, I'm sure.

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