Sometimes I think I would be a much happier reader if I’d never been in a courtroom and never read a police report. I began my obsession with crime fiction when I was only 12 or so and began devouring every Agatha Christie novel in my tiny library. (For a tiny library, they had a massive Christie selection.)
These days you see less Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple types. Instead you see cops and lawyers and cops and lawyers. It’s the way it goes. I have no problem with that. I’ve watched plenty of Law & Order marathons. While sitting around the last few weeks, I watched the entire first season of Murder One on Hulu. (I have also declared my love for Prime Suspect, which I still insist is one of the best cop shows ever even with only 13 episodes.)
But it’s one thing to watch a tv show, where the plot has to be condensed into a short time period. It’s another to read a book. And this is where I start to get picky.
Give me a book like Defending Jacob by William Landay and I have two immediate reactions: excitement and fear. I love legal thrillers but I find so many of them lackluster. (So how do I love them? I don’t really know. I love them… hypothetically.) Every now and then I find one that impresses me. I like Steve Martini most of the time. And I was a fan of Missing Witness, which came out a few years ago.
So I have to admit that Defending Jacob may have been at a slight disadvantage having me as a reviewer.
Let’s get to the story.
Andy Barber is a career ADA in a nice suburb. He has a wife and a teenage son. Everything’s pretty nice… until a high school student is killed. And Andy’s son is charged with the murder.
The ADA in him wants to get involved and solve the case, but he can’t be a part of the investigation. He also wants to defend his son, whom he believes is innocent. As Andy finds himself on the side of the accused instead of the accuser he struggles to decide how best to defend his son and clear his name. While Andy believes his son didn’t kill anyone, he is confronted by doubts and his own past, including a family secret he’s kept from everyone he loves.
There are certainly strong reminders of classic legal thriller Presumed Innocent by the daddy of legal thrillers, Scott Turow. Author Landay has certainly learned a thing or two from the master. Andy struggles with a host of legal and ethical issues. The plot is full of twists and turns.
So how does it measure up to a lawyer like me?
The courtroom scenes are excellent. The story is narrated in flashback through grand jury testimony and these scenes crackle with tension. Landay should be proud. He didn’t shortchange the courtroom scenes, he writes believable witness examinations, and the process all felt real. You can tell he knows what he’s writing about. (Unsurprisingly, Landay was an ADA himself before he turned to novels.)
Nevertheless I can’t give Defending Jacob a free pass. While the procedure is top notch, I found the characterization lacking. I tend to think that with decades of experience with the law, Andy is smart enough to know where to draw the line. But I often found his actions and responses unbelievable. He seemed to disregard everything he knew. I understand that when family is involved everyone can get a little crazy. As Andy is the 1st person narrator, I never felt convinced that his actions made sense.
I do seem to be in the minority. At least as far as the advance reviews go, Defending Jacob is picking up a lot of praise and buzz. I certainly can say I recommend it, it’s definitely a readable and well done legal thriller. (And, the ending does NOT disappoint, which is a big deal.) I’ve read enough books to know that my kind of quibble is one that’s personal and that many people won’t share.
So if you do enjoy a good courtroom thriller you should be on the lookout for Defending Jacob.
Thanks to Delacorte Press and Edelweiss for providing me with an advanced copy of Defending Jacob. And thanks to some lovely librarians on Twitter who recommended it. The novel will be released on Tuesday, January 31st.