Of late, it has been difficult for me to find books that hold my interest. I regularly listen to the New York Times Book Review podcast and also subscribe to Bookmarks magazine, so I am up to date with which are the hottest books being published – what critics are saying about them, as well as their authors in the course of the many interviews they do as part of their book promotion tours. I borrow these books from the library with great enthusiasm, but very often, I just don’t find them interesting enough to stick with them beyond the first few chapters – they don’t hold my attention or make me care enough about the characters to make reading them a pleasure rather than a chore.
Therefore, I decided to take a break from “heavy-duty” reading and go back to that genre which, when well done, is impossible for me to put down – a good old-fashioned murder mystery. I grew up on hundreds of Enid Blyton mystery books as a kid in India and I subsequently graduated to Agatha Christie – my all-time favorite mystery writer — whose books I can still read again and again and enjoy them even when I know whodunit (“Who [has] done it?”). Along the way, I also discovered that I like courtroom dramas, a great example of which are books by Jodi Picoult (see my review of Small Great Things). This is why when I came across Defending Jacob, it seemed to me like a no-brainer to give it a try and end my long dry run of finding something to read that I could actually finish. I’m happy to say that it worked. I was riveted by the book and finished it in the course of a day.
Defending Jacob tells the story of a regular family that is suddenly thrown in turmoil when the son, Jacob, is charged with the murder of a boy, Ben, from the same school, who is found stabbed to death in the neighborhood park. Jacob is the only son of Andy, who is actually the Assistant DA (District Attorney) of the small town near Boston where the murder happens and is given charge of the case. It is a real shock to the community, which has been crime-free until now — all the kids go to the local school and most of the parents have known each other since their kids started school in kindergarten. Andy and his wife, Laurie, are well liked and highly respected members of this community, and they remain so even after the murdered boy is found until it turns out that their son, Jacob, may have done it. They are then, of course, immediately ostracized. To his parents, Jacob seems just like any other high school adolescent boy – sullen, introverted, and uncommunicative — and it’s impossible for them to tell if these are normal or the signs of a killer. Complicating the fact is that Andy is descended from a family with a history of violence, with at least three generations of men prior to him convicted of murder and his father still in prison because of it. Andy has successfully disassociated himself from this aspect of his family’s history – even Laurie does not know about it – but now the issue comes up when the case goes to court. Is there such a thing as a “murder gene,” and if so, has Jacob inherited it?
Andy is removed from the case as soon as Jacob comes under suspicion and the book tells the harrowing story of the family’s long ordeal in the days leading up to the trial and the trial itself. The story is extremely well told without resorting to melodrama or clichés, making it extremely believable. And of course, it is a mystery that leaves you guessing – did Jacob do it, or someone else, such as the convicted pedophile who was often in the park where Ben was murdered? The fact that Ben bullied Jacob and that Jacob owned a knife that he had bought earlier naturally throws suspicion on him, along with the discovery of a single fingerprint found on Ben’s jacket that matches Jacob. Then there is the whole online world that Jacob inhabits — all the Facebooks posts among the school kids some of which openly accuse him of the murder, and the “cutter porn” chat rooms (focused on violence and torture) that he frequents and occasionally even contributes to. All of these are pretty incriminating, but are they sufficient for the jury to pronounce Jacob guilty without a reasonable doubt?
There is the proverbial twist at the end of this book, as with many books of this genre, but it is not something related to this crime itself – in fact, it is so believable that you do not feel for a minute that you have been cheated or that some information was withheld from you deliberately to throw you off the track. It ends on a solid conclusion rather than a shaky one, unexpected for sure, but not at all contrived. All in all, it was a very good read.
Author: William Landay
Publication Date: September 2013
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.