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