Friday, February 3, 2012

Book Review: "Defending Jacob" by William Landay

William Landay's Defending Jacob is not just a murder mystery. It's more than a suspense novel or a thriller, though it is all of those. It focuses less on the details of the crime or on who did it, and is more concerned with what happens to the family of the accused.

A teenaged boy is killed one morning on the way to school. There is very little evidence to go on in terms of chasing suspects, no murder weapon, no physical traces of DNA, no witnesses. There is one bloody fingerprint on the victim's clothing, however, and it is from this single clue that the investigators find their only possibility. The suspect is a classmate of the murdered boy, and his father happens to be the district attorney handling the case.

Andy Barber tells the story, both in first person and through transcripts of a grand jury hearing. He seems blind to the fact that his son Jacob could be capable of killing and constantly protests his innocence. He doesn't see a conflict of interest in his taking the case, even after Jacob is accused of the crime. Andy even hunts down another man, trying to force fellow lawyers into believing that this other guy must be guilty. He goes from lead prosecutor to assistant to the defense in order to clear his son's name.

Andy's wife Laurie doesn't handle the situation well. She loses weight and can't sleep. She ages quickly through the six months between crime and trial. She believes in her son, but she can't help but wonder if maybe Jacob is guilty, or at least is capable of violence. She questions her parenting and all the choices she made during Jacob's childhood.

Jacob is a typical teenaged boy...or is he? He's moody, ego-centric, something of a loner, addicted to the Internet. But he seems to be just a little moodier, more ego-centric, friendless, and Internet-focused than his peers. Is this a bad thing? Did he really contemplate murder in his own quiet way?

There are several instances of foreshadowing throughout the story, and they point to what happens after the trial. In the space of a few pages at the end of the book, we find out that some of the Barber family members are quite capable of unimaginable things.

Defending Jacob will appeal to suspense fans, perhaps less so to straight mystery fans because there is less procedure and more courtroom drama, but for those readers willing to branch out, do give this book a try. The plot doesn't move quickly, yet somehow the book is still a page-turner. You'll probably question a lot by the time the true psyches of the characters are revealed. Fans of character studies should enjoy the book also. There is one narrator--who is rather unreliable--but the author still manages to get inside the heads of other characters: The reader is able to see the actions of all the characters and judge whether Andy's impressions are correct or not. It's a genre-bending book, but it definitely has elements of suspense and of the psychological thriller. Do read it.

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