William Landay comes out with a book of crime fiction about every 5 years, and they are always worth a read. His first was Mission Flats in 2002, and The Strangler came out in 2007. I don’t appear to have reviewed Mission Flats, though I did read it. Perhaps it was before I started writing little bits about books on my personal Livejournal in 2002. But I jumped on The Strangler when an A.R.C. was made available to the employees of the downtown Barnes and Noble at which I worked in 2007. I liked it.
Another five years later, Defending Jacob became available through LibraryThing’s EarlyReviewers program. This is his best yet. It will definitely vie for the position of my favorite legal thriller ever. I have only two criticisms. First, a kind of bland title. And second, it’s hell waiting five years between Mr. Landay’s books.
Defending Jacob will get compared with Presumed Innocent a lot. For one, the marketing put out by the publisher references Scott Turow’s book. They are trying to pick up fans of that book. And if you like Scott Turow fiction, I’m betting you’ll like William Landay fiction. But beyond the marketing, there are a lot of common elements. The main character is a district attorney. He has a resentful subordinate. Instead of the D.A. himself being accused of murder, in this case it’s his son. And the lawyer turns his inside knowledge of the justice system toward defending his family. But there are layers of things going on here that make it more than Presumed Innocent’s tale of the justice system at war with one of it’s own members.
Andy Barber is the A.D.A. His son Jacob is a classmate of the murdered boy, and he initially conceals the fact that he discovered the body as well as other pertinent facts. So he looks pretty guilty, but there’s no evidence for him committing the murder itself.
Where things get interesting is that Andy Barber’s father is doing time for a murder. He’s had no contact with him for decades because he resents what his father did to the family. He also obsesses a lot over whether or not he himself has a propensity to violence because of his father. Now that Jacob is involved with a murder, he questions his heritage even more. This focus seemed a little forced at first, but the build-up is necessary.
The legal drama is far less interesting than Presumed Innocent. But this is less an actual legal thriller than it is a psychological story. The relationship between Andy and his wife, his father, his son, and himself are what are really important, not Jacob’s courtroom maneuvering. The central question for all of these relationships is
What kind of man is Andy Barber?
The plot feeds that very well. One of my problems with a lot of crime fiction is that the text seems to telegraph who the bad guy is, or whether or not someone did something. If the key question above is settled too early, the rest of the book becomes superfluous. William Landay did a superb job of making everything interesting at the same time that he keeps all the balls in the air. Toward the end, the plot twists multiple different directions to keep the reader confused. All of the turns made sense, and all of them surprised me!
Jacob stays a cipher throughout most of the book, but I suppose that’s necessary in order to prevent revealing whether he’s a murderer or not. The character of everyone else gradually solidifies, first Andy’s father, then his wife, and finally Andy himself. It was a very satisfying conclusion.