Crime and thriller novels, once read, can usually be slotted with ease into one of three categories: those you found rewarding, intriguing and memorable; those you’re content to have poured through but probably won’t recall well in the long-run; and others you wish you could unread if only to recoup the valuable leisure time you wasted in their company.
Some books, though, demand extended cogitation before an opinion of their value can be rendered. William Landay’s new work, Defending Jacob—an emotional roller-coaster ride of a tale that examines the extremes to which parents might go out of love for their children—is one of those.
Read the Rap Sheet’s interview with William Ryan, author of ‘The Darkening Field.’
This is Boston lawyer-turned-author Landay’s third standalone novel. He started out with an extraordinarily assured debut in Mission Flats (2003), and then followed that with the family focused historical thriller The Strangler (2007). Probably because of his background as an assistant district attorney, he brings to his storytelling a verisimilitude that others less familiar with the conflicting sides of the law can’t match. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he boasts a mature, if straightforward prose style and a willingness to explore the often convoluted back stories of his characters. Landay novels aren’t propelled merely by action; they are driven equally by their players’ remarkable reactions to plot turns.
All these qualities are evident in Defending Jacob. This yarn fairly bolts from the starting blocks with the gruesome discovery of a dead 14-year-old boy, Ben Rifkin, whose knife-punctured body was left beside a path ribboning through one of the public parks in Newton, Mass., a suburban community that famously (and ironically, in this instance) identifies itself as “a good place to raise kids.”
Originally assigned to prosecute the case is Andy Barber, the well-respected and long-practicing, 51-year-old first assistant district attorney for encompassing Middlesex County. However, when Andy’s only son, Jacob—a middle-school classmate of Rifkin’s, who had been a particular target of the deceased’s incessant bullying—becomes a suspect in the murder, the ADA’s politically sensitive boss puts him on paid leave and hands the investigation over instead to a younger, more ruthless colleague, Neal Logiudice.
Acting decisively, though perhaps impetuously, Logiudice shuts down Andy’s initial inquiry into the recent behavior of a pedophile known to have frequented the park where Rifkin perished. He refocuses the DA’s probe exclusively on Jake Barber, whose fellow students have implied openly on Facebook that he’s guilty of the slaying, and who boasted to friends that he owns a “kinda cool” knife.
“The suggestion that Jacob might be a murderer was just crazy; I did not seriously consider it,” insists Andy, who narrates this story. Yet soon after he discovers his son’s hook-shaped blade in a bureau drawer, wrapped carelessly in a T-shirt, he disposes of it in a distant Dumpster. Andy tells himself he isn’t covering up a crime, that he isn’t really concealing crucial evidence, but is merely eliminating an inconvenient weapon that could “make Jacob look guilty when he’s not.”
Nonetheless, Andy is convinced his moody, cynical and sometimes peculiar offspring knows something about recent events that he isn’t spilling, and that knowledge unsettles him tremendously. He is further disturbed by the appearance, on an Internet message board, of a “barely fictionalized account of the murder of Ben Rifkin”—one that he’s sure Jake wrote. “Suspicion, once it started to corkscrew itself into my thoughts,” he says, “made me experience everything twice: as questing prosecutor and as anxious father, one after the truth, the other terrified of it.”
Further eroding Andy’s confidence in his son’s blamelessness is his wife, Laurie, who begins to revisit the faults of Jake’s behavior over the years. How he used to steal things. How he could be “a little too rough, a little too aggressive.” How children around him tended to get hurt.
Her concerns increase when it’s revealed that Andy’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all violent men—a fact her husband had kept from her during their many years of marriage, and something that could conceivably be used against Jake in court, despite doubts among legal experts regarding the existence of a “murder gene,” or a tendency toward violence, that runs in families. An increasingly guilt-ridden Laurie comes to believe Andy is in denial of Jake’s possible criminal culpability; Andy thinks she’s turning hysterical about their son’s innocuous quirkiness. The couple’s qualms and pangs of distrust slowly undermine their marriage.
Landay’s decision to view this yarn through Andy Barber’s eyes was an excellent one. His protagonist doesn’t want to see bad things coming, and so readers are left vulnerable to the direness of un-telegraphed twists. Less successful is his subplot about the so-called murder gene. The author explores this matter at some length—the pseudoscience and understandable reservations surrounding the very concept—but it is ultimately less important to the pending trial than it is a means of forcing a character-developing reunion between Andy and his bitter, imprisoned father, Bloody Billy Barber, who he hasn’t seen in more than three decades.
Many readers, preferring neatly tied-up plots, will be frustrated by the way Landay drops red herrings and possibly significant clues, but then leaves a surfeit of questions outstanding at the end of the book. However, the raggedness of this story’s final section, especially, is one of its signal strengths, heightening the shocking turn that lurks there. Trust me: no one will say that Defending Jacob is not a memorable thriller. Some, though, might wish it was less so.