by William Landay
Newtown, Connecticut, is a showcase for post-suburban USA, combining a small-town rural atmosphere with cultural and social gentility. It is full of professionals who, when it comes to starting a family, have fled from Boston or New York for a slightly more affordable dream of space, safety and prosperity. But what lurks beneath the surface?
One of Newtown’s residents is Andy Barber, the assistant DA. He enjoys his job, in particular taking on murder cases which, under this state’s law, must be tried in court and not pled out. Andy leaps at the opportunity presented by the shocking discovery of the body of a teenage boy in some nearby woods. The boy had been stabbed three times. The initial investigation follows a familiar pattern, as the cops and DA’s office combine to interview witnesses and collect as much evidence as possible. Sensitive to the nuances of office politics but by his own account refusing to play them, Andy begins to feel uncomfortable vibes from his colleagues when the time comes to interview all the students at the dead boy’s school. One of these boys is Andy’s son, Jacob. Via a posting on his Facebook page, Jacob comes to the attention of the investigators, and before he knows it, Andy is off the case and Jacob is accused of the crime.
From being an insider, Andy is thrown to the opposite extreme, caged in his house and unable to communicate with those pursuing the investigation. The atmosphere between Andy, his wife Laurie and the withdrawn Jacob is fraught with suspicion and anxiety. Andy’s suppressed fears about his own background gradually ooze to the surface; the formerly warm and motherly Laurie is undermined by the uselessness of her psychological training in making any headway with the taciturn Jacob at home or in the psychologist’s and defence lawyer’s family interview sessions.
Defending Jacob is a very strongly written book that drives the reader on as the case against Jacob strengthens and his defence lurches ever-nearer disaster. The bulk of the book is told in the form of dual trials: the lead-up to and actual trial of Jacob; and, enveloping that, Andy’s arraignment in front of a grand jury for some unspecified, and unguessable, reason. The format of Jacob’s trial as reported through Andy’s eyes, together with the transcript of the grand jury hearing, pile on the tension. The device of two legal cases alerts the reader to two outcomes, so even if one guesses the result of Jacob’s ordeal, there is another investigation that waits to reveal its secrets.
The main strength of this book, however, is its depiction of a family under pressure, gradually cracking under the strain. Do the parents believe Jacob is innocent or guilty? Does the reader? The characterisations of the superficially confident Andy, the “perfect mom” Laura, and the uncommunicative Jacob, are beautifully paced as the family encounters each actual or imagined blow to its existence, whether via the internet, from a well-meaning psychologist, or just because of the sheer strain of day after day of mundane cohabitation while trapped in a house, shunned by their community and prevented from attending work or school.
In some ways, this novel echoes the addictive blend of domestic paranoia and legal formalities that characterised Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, not least in the central question of the guilt or innocence of Jacob. But the book is by no means derivative: it stands on its own as a compelling contribution to the legal crime-fiction genre.