Andy Barber is a seasoned prosecutor. At the age of fifty, he is the senior assistant to the District Attorney and used to litigating the most complex and high profile cases. When fourteen-year-old Ben Rifkin is found murdered on an April morning — his body abandoned in the park with three parallel, jagged knife wounds to the chest — Andy immediately springs into action, working side-by-side with long-time colleague and friend Paul Duffy, who is in charge of the investigation. Andy perceives no actual or apparent conflict of interest upon learning that the murdered boy is one of his son’s classmates. After all, who could want the case solved more than a parent whose child attends the same school and passes through the same wooded park each day en route to his classes?
It never occurs to Andy or his wife, Laurie, that their own son, Jacob, could be implicated in the crime until disturbing information starts coming to light. Odd postings on Jacob’s Facebook wall, including one from Jacob’s lifelong best friend, Derek, accusing Jacob of killing Ben unsettle Andy, who is determined to pursue a known child molester who resides in the area. And then there is the knife that Andy finds in Jacob’s room. With its serrated edges, could it be the murder weapon?
When Jacob’s fingerprint is found on Ben’s bloody clothing, Andy is not only removed from the case, but placed on administrative leave and Jacob is charged with murder. Only then does Andy confess the truth about his past to Laurie, the woman he has loved since they were seventeen years old.
Jacob insists that he is innocent. Andy and Laurie both love their son completely and want to believe in his innocence. But as their lives are consumed by preparation for Jacob’s trial, the strain of worry and wonder threatens to destroy their marriage and their futures, as well as their son’s. Everything Andy has believed in and counted upon is called into question.
William Landay is a former prosecutor who, with the publication of his third novel, Defending Jacob, has joined the ranks of foremost legal thriller writers, prime among them being Scott Turow. Defending Jacob is a masterful and complex blend of legal mystery, complete with plenty of plot twists and turns, and in-depth character study. The result is a fascinating exploration of guilt and innocence, trust and betrayal, truth and deception.
No one can ever truly know another human being. Not even a parent can fully appreciate what goes on inside the mind of their child, what dreams they experience at night, what unrevealed demons they battle. We bring children into the world and hope for the best, praying that our efforts will be enough to prepare and sustain them as they grow and embark on their own path. Against that backdrop, Landay portrays the Barber family, an unremarkable trio. Two professional parents who conceived their only child fairly late in life and have devoted themselves to him and the family they have formed face the most harrowing, nightmarish trial imaginable.
The story touches on ordinary, universal emotions about family and children. It raises a whole slew of questions that will feel awfully familiar to every parent and every family: Why do children behave as they do? How much is “hardwired” in their nature, how much is shaped by nurture? Why do good families sometimes produce bad children, or at least flawed children? What should parents do when a child begins to show signs of trouble? How far should you go in defending your child? . . . I think all parents will see traces of their own hopes and anxieties in Laurie and Andy Barber.~ Author William Landay
At the center of the story, narrating it, is Andy, who grew up without a father and has steadfastly hid the truth about his lineage from everyone, including his beloved wife. A highly successful prosecutor, no one is more familiar with the intricacies of the criminal justice system and all of its nuances and foibles. Andy knows too well that the system doesn’t always work the way it is designed to and that all involved bend the rules from time to time in the name of the greater good. Overall, however, he has always had faith that justice is ultimately done. But can his faith sustain him when his only child’s freedom is on the line?
Meanwhile, Laurie, the eternal optimist, communicator, and, according to Andy, captain of their little family, finds her maternal doubts bubbling to the surface when disturbing facts about Jacob begin coming to light. No one knows a child like his/her mother and intuition should never be doubted, but Laurie does not want to believe what her instincts are telling her about her son. Worse, information uncovered during trial preparation only seems to confirm what she has suspected, but never voiced, from the time Jacob was a toddler. Seen through the eyes of the man who has loved her since they were seventeen years old, Laurie is a woman trying desperately to hold on, but losing the battle inch by inch. Landay masterfully and poignantly describes her disintegration as preparation for the trial drags on and then, at last, the proceeding begins. Andy observes that when he looks at her, he still sees the vibrant, energetic young woman who stole his heart and was always asleep the moment her head hit the pillow. But the reality of their circumstances intrudes from time to time, forcing him to note that Laurie no longer sleeps well at all, has lost a significant amount of weight and has bags under her eyes. In one excruciatingly revealing moment, Andy observes that Laurie is wearing her sweatshirt backwards, but does not even seem to notice even as the tag rubs up against her chin. The periodic realizations startle and sadden Andy, just as the increasing emotional distance between them frightens him. Laurie wants honesty from Andy, not platitudes, but that is the one thing he finds increasingly hard to give her, largely because he no longer knows what the truth is — or even how to recognize it.
Jacob appears to be a normal fourteen-year-old boy who is neither popular nor particularly disliked. Rather, he and his few friends are the kids that no one seems to really notice at school. They skate around the fringes of their classmates’ consciousness — not smart enough to be considered part of the brainy crowd, not athletic, never in trouble. Just rather geeky and undefined. Jacob is quiet and spends a lot of time, like most adolescents, mumbling begrudging responses to his parents’ questions and locking himself in his room where he frequents the internet and communicates with his friends via text message. But when Andy discovers that some of Jacob’s activities are shocking and disturbing, he wonders, as would any parent, how he has managed to miss warning signs about his son’s behavior and psychological state.
Landay’s portrayal of both Andy and Laurie are spot-on and entirely believable. He expertly builds dramatic tension from the very first page, as Andy squares off before the grand jury with the ambitious prosecutor he trained. What that grand jury proceeding is addressing and why Andy is testifying are mysteries as Andy relates the details surrounding Ben’s murder and how Jacob came to be accused. Raising the book’s credibility, Landay takes few licenses with the legal details, including the deftly choreographed courtroom scenes.
From the outset, it is apparent that Defending Jacob is no run-of-the-mill thriller as Landay unfolds layer after nuanced layer of the story. Key plot points are perfectly timed to holder reader interest, as empathy and compassion for Andy and Laurie builds, along with curiosity about whether Jacob is guilty and, if not, who killed Ben, all leading to a heart-stopping conclusion that many readers will find utterly shocking. Defending Jacob is a fascinating tale to which any parent will be able to relate and readily lends itself to book club discussion. This was my first opportunity to read Landay’s work, but I look forwarding to reading more from him and highly recommend Defending Jacob to anyone who, like me, loves a gripping legal thriller that unabashedly delves into the inner workings of both the legal system and the human spirit.