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Monday, July 29, 2013

Defending Jacob by William Landay, 2012, * * * *

There are two types of suspense that run through Defending Jacob, a courtroom drama that hinges on the murder of a high school boy.  The first comes from trying to guess who killed him and the second comes from wondering whether the book's author, a former district attorney with two well-received novels behind him, has developed the ability to catapult himself into the Scott Turow tier of legal-eagle blockbuster writers.  The jury stays out until the books very last words.  The book opens amid a grand jury hearing, with Andy Barber, a former assistant district attorney, being grilled by Neal Logiudice who happens to have been Andy's protege.  The questions involve whether or not Andy should have been investigating the killing of a boy named Ben Rifkin.  The case fell into Andy's professional bailiwick, but the victim was a classmate of Jacob Barber, Andy's 14-year old son. Mr. Landay creates a clever blend of legal thriller and issue-oriented family implosion.  It helps that Andy is as ignorant about Jacob as he is savvy about courtroom theatrics.  Before the murder, Andy and his wife Laurie, just didn't know much about their son. Andy and Laurie are comfortable suburban parents who think they have done all the right things in raising their son and never questioned themselves.  However, the way that Jacob found Ben's body in the woods casts suspicion on Jacob as does the fact that Ben was a bully with Jacob as the frequent target.  Jacob's classmates, his parents learn, have also found Jacob a little strange. Landay delves simultaneously into Jacob's character and Andy's professionalism.  Andy was quick to assume that a sex offender living in the neighborhood was the prime suspect but on the witness stand has to defend that illogical leap. Meanwhile Andy discovers Facebook, "still largely a kids' paradise" in 2007, when the crime was committed and finds out what other students say about Jacob.  Mr. Landay writes: "suspicion, once it started to corkscrew into my thoughts, made me experience everything twice: as a questing prosecutor and anxious father, one after the truth, the other terrified of it." Jacob, who is largely inscrutable, is developed through the eyes of other characters, and at a slight remove, which adds to the suspense.  Is he a cipher? A typical teenager? A Sociopath?  The trial may settle nothing - either Jacob is a killer that the jury will set free or an innocent boy about to be sent to prison for life.  The book is difficult to put down.