William Landay’s courtroom novel, Defending Jacob, is interesting and engaging, but is it – as per the hype – this year’s version of Presumed Innocent? Sorry, but no, it’s not. This is one of those novels that comes down to the fake ending, where there are usually one or two twists that the reader didn’t anticipate or see coming. But, this time around, the reader has to deal with three feints and it all seems a bit much. The author is a graduate of the Boston College of Law, and I presume that at some point he heard an instructor state that, “The game is not worth the candle.” That’s a law professor’s way of saying that a lawyer’s or judge’s argument is far too clever to be convincing; which is precisely the way I felt about Defending Jacob.
This is a story about a Chief Assistant District Attorney who takes on a case involving the stabbing death of a 14-year-old student at his own son’s high school. It turns out his son is the prime suspect and, before you can sing a song by the 80s band The The, he’s banished from the office. The next thing he knows, he’s the second chair to a criminal defense attorney who’s defending his son on a charge of murder.
“After a thousand years or so of refining the process, judges and lawyers are no more able to say what is true than a dozen knuckleheads selected at random off the street.”
“…it was a little late in the day to be switching sides. I was not sure I could bring myself to defend the same scumbags I had spent a lifetime locking up.”
What Landay does well – quite well – is to express in a firm and gruff voice his doubts (as a former prosecutor) about the workings of the American criminal justice system. But his protagonist Andy Barber comes off sounding less like a lawyer and more like one of those grizzled former cops who becomes a hard-shoe Private Investigator. There were times, in fact, when I felt the story – set in 2007 – turn from color to black and white. It sometimes seemed that, except for references to personal computers, I was reading something set in the 1950s rather than in near-current times.
Defending Jacob has its moments, but a better read in this genre is Tell No Lies: A Novel by Julie Compton, a taut courtroom drama that comes replete with “a surprise ending.” That’s one surprise ending, not two or three. Because when it comes to Scott Turow-style surprise endings, less is more.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.