DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay

I began reading William Landay’s DEFENDING JACOB early in the morning and by nightfall I had finished it.  It is rare that a book can keep my interest that long without putting it down, but in this case Landay’s novel trapped me in my recliner and I just kept reading.  The plot is a complex one, but a story that touches a nerve as it unfolds.  Jacob is a teenager living in Newton, MA and he is accused of killing a classmate who had been bullying him.  His father a District Attorney in Middlesex County is forced to recues himself from the case, and his mom is a typical suburbanite mother.  The story has many unique twists and turns that keep the reader completely absorbed and as courtroom strategy and the effect of the legal system  on a family life is explored Landay raises many points that in real life we are forced to confront but never really think about.

In any criminal trial prosecutors are faced with human suffering, but in order to carry out their legal tasks they must keep their feelings at a distance, particularly dealing with a violent crime.  Landay provides in depth analysis of the prosecution and defense approaches to the trial.  Using Andy Barber, Jacob’s dad as the narrator is a very effective tool.  It is very interesting to think about how Andy reacts and deals with the arrest of his son and it puts into focus how parents deal with the death of children, particularly when their own child is accused of murder.  Landay does a credible job describing what the parents of the deceased child and the accused must go through.  The acts of sympathy on the one hand and the vilification on the other are difficult for all to deal with.  In addition, employing Andy Barber as the narrator, Landay provides an interesting critique of the legal system and the strategies employed by all involved.

Perhaps the most important legal issue that emerges is that of privacy, in particular the role of the internet in our society.  It is difficult for some to imagine the “foot print” that each person uses when they use email, Face book, and the internet in general.  What you write or say can never be totally deleted and things cannot be hidden.  Having taught for many years and been involved with students who were constantly reminded that what they put on the internet can affect their lives, I experienced a number of interesting situations where students had no clue that they could be caught saying and doing certain things.  Landay lays out this societal problem well and integrates its ramifications on the criminal justice system throughout the narrative.

The possible use of a “propensity to violence gene” is also explored by tracing the Barber family tree from a violent great grandfather, to “Bloody Billy Barber, Jacob’s grandfather, to his father Andy.  Though some might argue there is such a gene, it just raises the nature v. nurture arguments once again.  Landay explores this issue in detail and it is interesting to contemplate what it might mean if this were actually true.

The relationship between Jacob and his parents is well thought out.  Issues of unconditional love for one’s child can make parents blind to their actions as it appears in the case of Jacob.  But if one listens to the news were parents are shocked by the actions of their children one can see this is very common in our society.  For the Barbers it would appear very simple, was their son a burgeoning psychopath, or a boy just being a boy.  The theme of victimhood is also a major component of the novel.  Who is the victim here?  Is it the Barber family or the parents of the deceased boy?  How does anyone ever recover from being placed in this type of situation?  Was justice actually served by the legal process Landay described?  What of the Barber family, who once Jacob is accused, stood to lose everything; their sanity, careers, home etc?  The book raises the issue that we all might be damaged in some way, and if we are how one does cope?  DEFENDING JACOB is not the typical murder mystery as it goes beyond the “who dun it” approach by raising many complex personal issues that seem to appear in the media each day.  The book has many twists and turns that will surprise the reader and I recommend it highly and look forward to reading Landay’s other two murder mysteries in the near future.

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