Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay (Random House/Bantam, $16.00, 437 pages)
If you loved Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, read this.
One of my favorite films is the Al Pacino classic And Justice for All, which might as well have been titled And Justice for No One. In my time as a reviewer for Joseph’s Reviews, I have reviewed many crime/suspense/mystery/call them what you will novels, because many people enjoy reading these books. Most, in my opinion, are average at best. They appeal to a certain readership, and they get published.
The ones that distinguish themselves stand out for reasons that can sometimes be explained – for example, they actually tell a story, the reader cares about the characters, and they defy the formulaic conventions that permeate run-of-the-mill books. Other times the reasons are more subtle. A writer can just plain write – simple as that, and the book stands on its own, independent of any pre-conceived convention. In those cases, things become a bit more subjective.
William Landay’s Defending Jacob succeeds on both accounts and is one heckuva book, period. For people who enjoy the genre, it is an absolute must read. Landy tells the story of Ben Rifkin’s murder in the first person, which is a brilliant decision. This point of view adds to the suspense and human dilemma faced by the main character, Andy Barber, and his family. A less skillful writer might not have pulled this off, but as it stands, the decision perfectly advances the story. The reader suspends judgment and is pulled in multiple directions throughout the entire novel.
Barber is the town’s assistant district attorney and the initial investigator on the Rifkin case. Ben is brutally stabbed in a park on his way to school. Eventually, Andy’s son, Jacob, a socially awkward teen who was bullied by Ben, is accused of the murder. This creates further complications, including politics in the D.A.’s office. On top of that, Andy’s conscience may not be the most reliable barometer, as he has spent his life trying to bury the fact that his father is serving a life sentence for murder. Is there such a thing as a murder gene, a propensity for violence?
Jacob’s internet proclivities and childhood indiscretions don’t help him. But do they add up to murder?
In the end, a second incident and the preponderance of the evidence appears to lead to a certain direction, but the plot is so carefully constructed that empathy for the narrator still tempers judgment, and – like in And Justice for All, sometimes justice is not absolute. Sometimes the criminal justice system is only as good as the flawed humans who are entrusted to administer it.
Dave Moyer is a public school system superintendent, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.
Note: Defending Jacob is used as a textbook in Criminal Justice introductory classes at California State University, Sacramento as it provides insight into the complexities of the criminal justice system.