Review of “Defending Jacob” by William Landay

In this innovative legal procedural, Jacob Barber, 14, is accused of killing a bullying 8th grade classmate, who was viciously stabbed and left to bleed out in a nearby park. Jacob’s father, Andy, as First Assistant District Attorney in Middlebury County, Massachusetts, was initially assigned the case when the dead boy was found, but forced to recuse himself when his own son was accused. Moreover, Andy was put on paid leave. A rival of Andy’s, Neal, takes up the case literally with a vengeance. Neal also stops an investigation into the possibility that a pedophile who lives near the park committed the crime rather than Jacob’s son.

Being convinced that Jacob is innocent but that the legal system is not always fair is not Andy’s only worry. Andy is also concerned that the trial may bring out the fact of his alleged “murder gene.” [In real life, this is a recent addition to the legal toolbox based on the discovery of a genetic variant linked to male antisocial behavior found on the gene called MAOA (monoamine oxidase A). Scientists have observed that when there is a low activity of this gene, and the child has experienced maltreatment or unusual stress, he has a significantly greater likelihood for the manifestation of violent antisocial behavior. Legal experts are using this information to convince jurors that a carrier of this mutation may not be entirely in control of his actions.] Both Jacob’s attorney and the prosecutor have seized upon the idea of the murder gene – the defense attorney in the hope of sentencing mitigation if needed, and the prosecutor in the hope of convincing the jury that Jacob was predisposed to commit crimes.

Andy is adamantly dismissive of the idea of a “murder gene” as non-scientific and definitely non-determinative. Yet he never told his wife Laurie about the generations of killers in his family, and won’t even acknowledge the existence of his father, who is incarcerated. Just as steadfastly, Andy refuses to acknowledge the possibility that his son is pathological and/or guilty.

Laurie, the daughter of a psychologist, is flawed in her own way: overly analytical, consumed by guilt both real and imagined, and having a narcissistic concept of her own importance, a condition also ascribed to Jacob, much to Laurie’s dismay. Laurie’s behavior and choices irritated me, and yet I can’t say I would act any differently if my son were accused of murder.

The story, narrated by Andy, alternates between an accounting of the trial and an accounting of the downward spiral of the family into first infamy, then depression and despair, and then, a surprising dénouement. Intermittently, portions of the grand jury hearing transcript are inserted, providing a preview of matters that will be revealed next by Andy’s story.

Evaluation: This book is skillfully done, extremely realistic, satisfyingly suspenseful, and very thought-provoking, but so depressing! It is undoubtedly interesting and would make a wonderful choice for a book club, but it was just tragic all the way around; it haunted me long after I finished.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 2012


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10 Responses to Review of “Defending Jacob” by William Landay

  1. Sandy says:

    I was pretty much powerless in the wake of the reviews yesterday, so I have this ordered on audio. All I had to hear was that it was comparable to Presumed Innocent. Hey, maybe I can convince my book club to read this!

  2. sagustocox says:

    I just read another review raving about this book. Wow. Love it.

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    This book seems to leave everyone somewhat stunned. It sounds like it’s very well written. I want to read it soon.

  4. zibilee says:

    I also ordered this one on audio, so perhaps Sandy and I will be close to each other on the delivery list! It sounds like a great read, and reminds me of We Need to Talk About Kevin, though I can imagine this one will be a lot less disturbing. So glad that you liked it, and glad that you posted such a thoughtful and intricate review. I enjoyed it and can’t wait for the book to come!

  5. It was disturbing to me too. I thought maybe it’s because I have a middle schooler!

  6. Jenners says:

    I never heard of this murder gene thing. Yikes. Sounds good for when I want to put myself in a bleak and horrible mood.

  7. Alyce says:

    I would think that the murder gene would be used by the prosecution rather than the defense (to say, look this guy is not only genetically predisposed to do this, but is going to be prone to do it again). Not my normal type of read, but the whole murder gene topic is thought-provoking.

  8. This sounds very interesting! I haven’t heard of the murder gene before, so thanks for including an explanation!

  9. Staci@LifeintheThumb says:

    I know it sounds weird but a book that haunts you after you finished it makes me want to read it!!

  10. stacybuckeye says:

    Hmmm…there is a killer in Gage’s bloodline – I hope it didn’t get passed on to him! I do want to read this one, or at least I did until I read your review!

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