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Defending Jacob


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Defending Jacob is a complex and readable crime novel.


Broadly, Andy Barber is the First Assistant DA in a small town in Massachusetts. He has been tasked with leading the investigation into the death of a teenage boy, Ben Rifkin, found stabbed in a local park. As the investigation progresses, the evidence starts to point to Andy's son Jacob. Andy has no doubt of Jacob's innocence and when he is suspended from the DA's office to avoid any conflict of interest, he sets about seeking the best defence that money can buy.


The novel is narrated by Andy in a retrospective fashion, allowing various comments about forthcoming developments. You know the sort of thing: 'little did we know this would be the last time we felt so relaxed', or 'had I known then what I now know, I might have done things differently'. This starts out sounding conversational, but leads to some unnecessary complications as the use of tenses gives away a major part of the denouement. But perhaps William Landay wanted to give this away. After all, it is a novel about people and relationships rather than being a strich whodunnit. The narration is also interspersed with transcript of a court cross-examination of Andy Barber, conducted by his erstwhile protege Neal Logiudice. Part of the intrigue is in working out just what the cross examination is all about - and allows an interesting counterpoint between the account on the record and the account we are reading.


The novel addresses Themes with a capital T. These include honesty, loyalty, conflict between personal and professional interests, delusion, whether ends justify means, nature versus nurture, etc. The list goes on. It is to the author's credit that the many themes feel engaging rather than affected. The narrative style is light enough to bear the heavy messages and the focus on family relationships - especially the triangle between Ben and his parents - grounds any general themes in a very personal context. Aside from this, there is the complexity of the relationships between the schoolkids, played out in both the real world and online. This works well.


Where the novel fails, however, is the ending. There are three or four superfluous chapters that detract rather than add to the authenticity. Ideally, the novel would have stopped in the carpark outside the courtroom, leaving the intelligent reader to fill in gaps or make inferences. Instead, William Landay spells it out to us in idiot-proof language just in case the reader didn't get the twist. It feels so out of step with the rest of the novel which could easily have borne some residual ambiguity.


On balance, this is a good read with plenty of tension and intrigue. It is worth reading, but the let-down at the end seems such a shame.



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I normally agree with you over your reviews Mr HG but not here.  I thought Defending Jacob was clumisly written, badly plotted and frankly implausible in so many ways - especially the ending.  We read this for my book group last year and the warmest reception it had was dislike.  Everyone else felt much more strongly.

Edited by Viccie
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Maybe I was just in a generous holiday mood, but I think you have to suspend disbelief to an extent with all crime novels. This seemed no less plausible than others. Besides, I liked the hopelessly partial narration and attributed a lot of the awkwardness to the fact that Andy was viewing the world through blinkers. 

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