Book Review: Defending Jacob

I went through a phase years ago (before I discovered psychological thrillers) where I read nothing but legal suspense novels. John Grisham was a favorite – A Time to Kill, The Pelican Brief, and The Firm are just a few of the classic courtroom dramas that got me hooked. I loved the conspiracies, the suspense, and most of all, the climax! (There always seemed to be a surprise witness at the end that changed the outcome of the trial.) As my reading taste evolved, I found myself reading less in this genre. This year as I was selecting the books for my book club reading list, I intentionally chose one from the legal suspense genre; these books make for a great discussion and generally have a universal appeal. No one can resist a good old fashioned ‘whodunit’ story.

Defending Jacob by William Landay is more than just an ordinary courtroom drama. It is a compulsive thriller with elements of a family drama at times and a murder mystery at others. At the heart of it is a family in crisis. Imagine that you live in a close-knit community where crime is practically non-existent and your neighbors are like family. Everything is great until one day a 14 year old boy is found murdered. All of a sudden, the community becomes unhinged; people no longer trust their neighbors and accusations run rampant. Now, imagine that your child is accused of this terrible crime. How would you handle it?

Andy, the father, tells the story of how this unfolds and how it affects him, his wife, his son (Jacob), and the community. Because Andy is a former prosecuting attorney, he is able to educate us about legal details through dialogue without spending a lot of time explaining it. (Although, I never truly figured out if he was a reliable narrator or not.) Jacob’s character is developed through the eyes of all the characters. It is up to the reader to decide if he’s guilty or not guilty. I thought that was what made this book so compelling!

The writing method used in this book is quite interesting. It is basically a narrative within a narrative; there is a typed transcript from a court reporter weaved throughout the book. At first, it’s confusing because it’s not clear who is being investigated in the grand jury trial, but you soon discover that this narrative is helping tell the story. There’s also a sub-plot sprinkled in there about Andy’s family history. It raises the question, “Is the impulse to kill passed down through generations?” (i.e., the murder gene) Personally, I don’t think there is any scientific proof of this occurring so my answer is no. However, I appreciate his attempt to lay out all possible theories. Defense attorneys have to be pretty creative sometimes so I think this is a realistic strategy that might actually be used.

Being a parent myself, I identified with the desperation that Andy felt as he searched for ways to save his son. I love my children unconditionally and I could never accept that they were capable of a heinous crime. However, I can also relate to the mother as she chose to consider the possibility and looked for answers in her own way. This is more than a story of nature vs. nurture; the true questions are, should a parent feel responsible for their child’s inherent qualities? Are parents victims or criminals in situations like these?

Overall, I really loved this book! It really brought back those feelings I got when reading old Grisham novels. Just when I think the story is wrapped up, another twist is thrown out there and changes the whole direction of the plot! If you are looking for a page-turner that will keep you up all night, this is it. You will want to read it with a friend or two so you can talk about it over coffee the next day. (It’s great for book club discussions.) I will be recommending this one often!

Goodreads rating: 5 out of 5 stars


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