William Landay’s Defending Jacob grabbed me from the first paragraph and didn’t let go for close to 400 pages.
In the tradition of page-turning legal thrillers like A Time to Kill or Presumed Innocent, Defending Jacob is a reminder of just who satisfying a legal thriller can be when it tries to do something more or different with the genre.
Andy Barber is the assistant DA for a small town in Massachusetts. When the community is rocked by the murder of a high school boy, Andy is assigned the case and begins working to make sure justice is served and the guilty party brought to justice. What Andy doesn’t count on are clues that lead to his teenage son Jacob as the prime suspect in the murder. Andy is removed from the case, put on administrative leave and Jacob charged with the crime. Andy and his wife hire a lawyer to defend Jacob with Andy fully convinced that no matter how much the evidence stacks up against his son, Jacob isn’t guilty of the crime.
If that was all that Defending Jacob was about, the novel would fall into the category of a good but not great legal thriller. But William Landay raises the bar a bit with some of the twists and turns of the novel. For one thing, Andy is a bit of an unreliable narrator, driven by his absolute faith in his son and his denial of his family’s history toward murder. Turns out that Andy’s father is serving life in prison for murder, a fact that Andy hid from his wife and son for years. (The news rocks his marriage to its very foundations).
The other is that the novel is told as part of a deposition between Andy and the DA who took over and prosecuted Jacob’s case. This creates certain expectations about where the story could go in the final pages, all before Landay pulls the rug out from under us in the novel’s final section. (To say more would be to ruin it and I’m probably perilously close to doing that now…)
The novel also delves into the impact the trial has on Andy and his family. As stated before, Andy is holding on to secrets and he makes some boneheaded moves in an attempt to protect his son and proclaim Jacob’s innocence. The novel also delves into the toll the trial takes on the family emotionally, professionally, spiritually and financially. At one point, Andy notes that even if Jacob is exonerated, the family is financially ruined by the high cost of his defense.
As I said before, Defending Jacob grabbed me from the opening moments and wouldn’t let go. It’s a compelling legal thriller and proof that there is life in the genre.