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.