Author: William Landay.
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2012.
I feel badly writing yet another review of a mystery/courtroom drama, as I try to write about a variety of types of books, but I couldn’t resist this one. Besides, in reading the list of the New York Times Book Review’s top 16 fiction books I see that 11 of them are mysteries, thrillers or courtroom dramas so it is pretty obvious that this kind of book is very popular.
Defending Jacob is a book of which the late, master of suspense, director Alfred Hitchcock, would have been proud. As in all of his movies, just when you thought you had it all figured out a twist came along to catch you by surprise.
Set in Newton, Massachusetts, a high class suburb of Boston, Assistant District Attorney Andrew Barber is called when a classmate of his 14 year old son Jacob is found stabbed to death in a nearby park. He is asked at the time if he thought he should step away from the case since it might be perceived as being a conflict of interest. He does not feel that is necessary since he does not know the boy or believe that his son knows him either. However, he is soon forced to step down when (twist number one) his son is accused of being the murderer. He quickly hires an attorney to defend Jacob and is successful in getting him released on bail. The whole family soon finds themselves friendless, even by friends they had been close to for many years. After all, they must have done something wrong since it was they who had birthed and raised this killer.
Andrew Barber is his son’s most ardent supporter and does his best to prove that another young man, who frequents the park, and has been found guilty of being a pedophile in the past, is the one guilty of the crime. He is so convinced of his son’s innocence that he seems able to overlook things that might point the finger at him and, in fact, goes to some lengths to destroy evidence he finds that might easily lead one to the conclusion that, perhaps, his son is guilty of the crime of which he has been accused.
Despite his proclaimed insistence that his son is innocent there is a haunting fear in his mind that perhaps there might be some truth to the accusation due to the fact that (twist number two) his family has a history of violence, something that he has never told his wife, and a truth that he has gone to extremes to overcome in his own life. Both his father and grandfather were murderers and he learns that even now his father, who he has not seen since early childhood, is in prison for murder, bearing the nickname “Bloody Billy Barber.” He is fearful that there might be such a thing as a “murder gene.” Should the prosecutor learn of his history he is afraid that he might use this as a reason for Jacob’s supposed crime. On the other hand, perhaps the defense attorney can use these facts to his advantage as something Jacob had no control over, thus avoiding the charge of first degree murder, a crime for which the punishment is an automatic life sentence in prison in the state of Massachusetts.
And so it goes, in true Hitchcockian style. Another one of Mr. Hitchcock’s trademarks was his personal presence in some small way in each of his films. Perhaps he was the man behind the newspaper at the table in a restaurant, or the guy selling peanuts in the park. You had to watch carefully for him, and we soon learned to do so, as it was always a brief and unexpected appearance, but it was always there. In hindsight, maybe he was there somewhere in this book, in some tiny, cameo part, and I just missed it.
On top of being a first rate story this book gives one much to think about. Is there such a thing as a “murder gene?” How much does bullying in the school lead to violent situations? How far should a parent go in protecting a child, especially when there might be some truth to the serious charge being made against him? How much do they owe the community around them from the harm their child might do in the future? So Defending Jacob is not only an intriguing and engrossing novel, but it also gives one food for thought. How much more might one ask of an author?
Diane Bostick has lived on Marco Island since 1987. She was the Founder and President of Ft. Myers chapter of the Association of Children with Learning Disabilities, President of Jr. Welfare League, Ft. Myers Chapter, and served on the board of Art League of Marco Island. She is an avid reader, fly fisherwoman, tennis player and crafter.