Defending Jacob by William Landay (2012 fiction)
I was initially offended by a 15-page Readers’ Guide from Random House Readers Circle, which I ignored. But now that I am reviewing, I am grateful. Defending Jacob is an unforgettable story, superbly told. Factually, a Junior High boy is murdered, and a classmate Jacob Barber is the prime suspect. Jacob’s father Andy, a well-known local attorney, undertakes his son’s defense. There are three concentric communities. Family – only child Jacob, parents Andy and Laurie Barber, and Andy’s dad, Bloody Billy Barber, an incarcerated murderer. The local middle school, a hothouse of competing teenagers. Jacob and Ben were in different groups. Ben called other people names. He was in the dominant class, and Jacob was a geek, a member of the victim class. Lastly, the town, concentrated in the legal community – judge, opposing counsels, jury, and townspeople. Also, a convicted pederast, Leonard Patz. The family stands solidly behind Jacob, with Andy’s nondisclosure to Laurie of the existence of Grandpa Billy Barber, a source of significant strain. This also encourages the consideration of a murder gene, an inherited inclination to homicidal violence which somehow explains and excuses Jacob’s behavior. The school setting is simply described. Ben Rifkin was big and handsome. He bullied and teased. Jacob was just ordinary, but he had a temper, and friends knew he had a knife. The story is developed as a trial, and Jacob’s future looks doomed. The court transcripts are riveting reading. The ending is completely unexpected.
Reviewed by Martin Waldron