Sunday, March 25, 2012

Former DA leads the way in William Landay's "Defending Jacob"

Suburban Boston. A good community. Good schools. Good parenting. Good kids?
Eighth-grader Ben Rifkin is found dead with stab wounds in a Newton, Mass., park by a jogger. Prosecutor Andy Barbour starts to investigate the case and finds a likely suspect, an unregistered pedophile living nearby. Facebook rumors by Ben’s classmates find another --- Andy’s son Jacob.
So the top-notch prosecutor is taken off the case and becomes a primal defender as father in Defending Jacob, William Landay’s courtroom thriller.  Andy Barber maintains his unwavering belief in Jacob despite discovering how little he knows about his son.
He’s not the only one. Ben’s father, Dan just can’t understand why anyone would kill Ben: “Ben was so good. That’s the first thing. Of course no kid deserves this anyway. I know that. But Ben really was a good boy. He was so good. And just a kid. He was fourteen years old, for God’s sake.”
Fourteen – a perfect age for these troubled characters. Fourteen’s an age when even “normal” kids aren’t normal, an age when parents often haven’t caught up yet. They’re still thinking of their sons and daughters as innocent children while the teens are discovering who they are by bullying others and being bullied, hanging out in Facebook,  and lurking about in internet chat rooms.  Kids keep secrets and emergent personality traits well hidden from their parents; the parents wouldn’t recognize Ben or Jacob from teenage peer descriptions.
Nor, in this book, does anyone know the parents. Andy Barber has kept an ancestral and childhood secret from his son and his wife, Laurie, whom he met in college.  The male side of his family has a history of violence and murder. A murder gene? His explanation for the omission -- after the first intimate disclosures of identity when Andy told Laurie he didn’t really know his father, there was never a good time to tell. 
Furthermore, Andy’s such a good guy himself. As the book opens he is testifying before the grand jury 14 months after the murder because he says, he believes in the system (which he then tell us “isn’t exactly true).”  This grand jury testimony threads throughout Andy’s narrative of the murder, Jacob’s trial and the aftermath.  The reader doesn’t know why Andy has voluntarily taken the stand or what this investigation is about until the final pages. All we know is he is being questioned by Neal Logiduce,  a prosecutor he trained, the prosecutor who replaced him, the man who prosecuted Jacob.
In the grand jury investigation Logiduce uses Andy’s good graces against him: “Your honor, we all know and have fond feelings for the defendant’s father, who is in the courtroom today. I personally have known this man. Respected and admired him. I have great affection for this man, and compassion, as we all do, I’m sure. Always the smartest man in the room. Things came so easily to him. But. But.”
While the judge immediately intervenes, reminding everyone Andy is not on trial, that’s only half true. His family has been under siege since Jacob became a suspect.  Author Landay hones in on how quickly “our crowd,” a klatch of upper middle class, well-educated, concerned parents, recoils from the accused’s family. Graffiti, offensive phone calls, and a lurking individual in a car haunt the Barbers. Grocery store outings become occasions for painful encounters.  Laurie takes it the hardest, growing haggard, losing her circle of support, obsessively reviewing all of Jacob’s childhood behaviors, allowing doubt to creep in.
               Andy simply doesn’t go there. “He isn’t guilty. I know my son. I love my son,” he states and restates in as many ways as possible. He privately pursues the pedophile, making chilling discoveries that the single-minded Logiduce has ignored.
               The reader seesaws with the arguments from belief to disbelief, questioning, along with the characters,  arguments of nature and nurture, the significance of DNA evidence that shows a  gene for violence, and  the possibility of “confirmation bias,” the human tendency to believe what one wants to believe.  The implications of such new discoveries in genetics, neuroscience and psychology on the justice system play out in fictive form. Ultimately the reader questions that system itself, both its basic belief in free will and the fallibility of the way it works.  Andy tells us: “Here is the dirty little secret: the error rate in criminal verdicts is much higher than anyone imagines… Our blind trust in the system is the product of ignorance and magical thinking, and there was no way in hell I was going to trust my son’s fate to it.”
               What’s the reader to believe? Unconsciously, from the start we believe our storyteller. We have little choice but to see the world as he sees it.  As filter, as guide, his point of view is ours. Like a child, we trust in him.  While some of his actions may make us cringe, we take in his explanations and accept them until --- until we don’t.
               The rebellious reader may break away from this smart, domineering father, this experienced pattern maker. For this reader that disillusionment happened close to the book’s brilliant end – the final page of a series of endings.
When the grand jury testimony ultimately merges with and takes over the main plot, what is revealed is a verbal battle between two lawyers that has the power to destroy one or both.  While references are made to Columbine, the denouement also suggests similarities to another recent high-profile case in which a representative of the legal system’s son was accused of murder. Perhaps William Landay, a former district attorney himself, wondered what it would be like to be in such a position and to get inside the head of such a character.
               What is true for this reader at least is that Landay is good.  His skill with character, dialogue, family dynamics, plot and intrigue makes Defending Jacob a good read.
               His ending makes it  even better -- what my Maine friends would call wicked good.

Why I chose this book:  I grew up in a suburb neighboring Newton, still have some connections to the area and was intrigued by the setting.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Jussi Adler-Olsen dials up the pressure in "The Keeper of Lost Causes"

 Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes is no pot boiler; it’s a solidly written pressure cooker. 
               Another in the slew of newly translated Scandinavian mysteries, this Danish police procedural features a mismatched crime-solving duo, the hardboiled, irritating Carl Morck and his charming assistant, Middle Eastern motley fool, Assad.  While Carl is abrasive as sand paper, Assad can be as pleasingly smooth as massage oil. Their interaction provides much needed comic relief to the building tension, long- term torture, and considerations of suicide the plot comprises.
               The prelude presents a glimpse of the main plot:  a caged woman who doesn’t know where she is or what she has done to get herself in the box she’s in.
The story then cuts to 2007 when Carl has been promoted to the basement. No one wants to work with the surly, depressed Danish detective so his boss, Marcus Jacobsen, creates a department just for him coinciding with the legislature’s newly allocated funds for working on cold cases --- a sum that far exceeds what Carl will use. It’s a no-lose situation:  It isolates Carl and the extra money from Department Q will spill over to Jacobsen allowing him to hire four new investigative teams (to replace Carl’s one former team).  Plus it gives Carl recovery time; he is suffering following an assault that left one of his partners dead, another paralyzed and him traumatized with  survivor’s guilt. The assault occurred as part of an investigation of a murder by nail gun, another case that remains unsolved.
Carl defiantly basks in his solitude, passing the time lazing away, playing Spider Solitaire, solving Sudoku puzzles and counting, but not opening, case files.  But when he gets wind of the way the funding works, he can’t resist a counter move. He demands a car, and an assistant. They assign him Assad and the fun begins. Carl has to find something for Assad to do. Assad proves more than the tidy janitor, careening chauffeur, strong coffee maker, cheerful gopher and secretary charmer that he first appears to be.  He wheedles Carl back to work.
Almost haphazardly Department Q settles on the case of Merete Lynggaard, a beautiful, mysterious former member of parliament, who disappeared while travelling on a ferry five years ago.  She was with her disabled brother Uffe, who has lasting brain injuries from a family car accident. Merete, is believed to have drowned. Perhaps she was pushed or jumped from the ferry. Her body was never found. The reader, of course knows otherwise; she is the woman in the cage.
At first the cold case seems impossible to crack; old leads go nowhere. Slowly, slyly, Assad turns up a few promising threads and Carl engages. Tension builds. Merete fights her captivity with all she’s got left –  her will to live for Uffe. Carl  visits Uffe,  interviews  his former caretaker, Merete’s former secretaries,  even a former wannabe boyfriend.  Carl uncovers a botched initial investigation and follows his instincts. Assad, like a magician  pulling a rabbit out of a hat, finds a long lost briefcase seemingly out of thin air.  Back at the cage, the torturer cranks up the pressure.
Will Carl and Assad find Merete in time to save her?
While the story cuts back and forth from the cage to the crime solvers, two subplots also emerge with  parallel pressure, suicide and survivor issues of the main plot. The first is the crime that made Carl a basket case at the book’s beginning.  Carl feels compelled to visit his paralyzed partner, Hardy Hennigsen in the rehabilitation hospital and do what he can for him.  In addition, the nail gun case has developments reinforcing his trauma.  While Merete may feel pressure from without while imprisoned in a cage, Carl feels parallel pressure from within his ribcage; he suffers panic attacks.
Subplot number two involves the murder that the teams upstairs are working on with sporadic small successes due to either casual comments tossed them by Carl or outright consultation with him. They can’t work with him and they don’t work without him. The case, involving a murdered bicyclist and a witness to the murder, also includes themes of suicide, sacrifice/responsibility for others and pressure.
It’s the interplay of the characters and themes more than red herrings or twists of plot that make this mystery interesting.  Curiously, a few characters are introduced including a live-in stepson and an estranged wife and hardly used and some crimes go unsolved. Perhaps  these relationships and crimes will be further explored in future books.
Some, like me, may put together the reason for the kidnapping long before the kidnapper is cornered by Carl and Assad. And even as the plot simmers, the pressure cranks and the case heats up, the reader has a pretty good guess as to the inevitable end, by virtue of structure alone.
That structure, seesawing back and forth between the cage and the crime solvers, lends itself to easy transformation into a screenplay.  Perhaps Jussi Adler-Olsen had such a transformation in mind as he wrote.  But if that screenplay were to become a movie, the interaction of crime solvers would likely be critical to its success – just as it is in the book.   While the caged  woman and her torturer provide terror, Carl and Assad are a comedy act and an investigative team to be reckoned with.