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Book Review: Defending Jacob by William Landay


Defending Jacob is a crime thriller which will have you hooked all the way. It’s a sensational read centering on family dynamics and a seemingly ordinary family who suddenly become the focus of a murder trial. The brutal murder of a young boy in a small town is shocking, even for assistant district attorney, Andy Barber but when the investigation begins to implicate his fourteen year old son, Jacob, Andy’s personal and professional lives fuse and implode. Steadfastly certain of his son’s innocence, Andy will do anything to clear his name. But will it be enough?

When a boy is found dead in woods bordering the local school, Andy immediately smells a big case. Confident in his own ability to run the investigation, he doesn’t even think to question his integrity when it emerges that the dead child, Ben Rifkin, is in his own son’s class. Indeed, even when it becomes apparent that other school pupils are reluctant to speak to the police, Andy doesn’t suspect the truth: they don’t want to tell him about Jacob. It is left to other officers on the case, led by Andy’s wily former protégé, Neal Logiudice to begin the covert operation which reveals clues suggesting Jacob’s sullen streak might be more than just typical adolescent angst.

Faced with the reality of their only son being arrested and detained on suspicion of murder, Andy and his wife, Laurie are horror-stricken. Landay intersperses transcript from the trial with flashbacks to the time of the event so as past catches up with present, we are able to see in agonising detail the effect it has on the family. Narrated from Andy’s point of view, we also hear him recollect memories of Jacob’s childhood, feeling that parental conflict of love for a growing child and regret that those early days are all too quickly over. Defending Jacob explores the unconditional love of a parent for a child and questions how far we would go to protect them, even in our own minds.

While Andy is entirely convinced of Jacob’s innocence, Laurie’s resolve eventually wavers. As evidence becomes harder to dismiss, Laurie recounts their memories from a different stance, over-analysing every detail as Jacob’s trial becomes the family’s whole world. Thrust into a courtroom for the first time, Laurie struggles to cope, beginning to wither before Andy’s eyes; though Laurie condemns herself for doubting their son, Andy sees her as flawed for the first time. It becomes clear that even if Jacob is cleared, life will never be the same again; Andy will never be able to return to the job he loved and the very essence of their relationships has changed.

Jacob’s character rightly remains somewhat elusive throughout the book. Narrated by Andy, it reads true that he could not know everything about his teenage son’s life. As he looks at Jacob’s Facebook page for the first time, Andy is shocked to discover how little he may have known his own son. We see Jacob primarily through other people’s eyes, adding suspense to the story as everyone seems to be an unreliable narrator. Much of what we see of Jacob makes him appear like an ordinary boy; at times petulant but also scared and vulnerable. We want Jacob to be innocent. As the story draws to a close, it takes some twisting turns which question the Barbers’ parenting and will leave you wondering how far you would go to protect your child. 

The D.A. finds his son charged with murder, his world and his professional ethics are turned upside down - does he take the case to protect his son.

Written by Keri Wilson

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