Courtroom drama hit and miss

Summer Reading Challenge looks into "Defending Jacob"

At first, reading this novel was like biting into a big, juicy burger. It was tasty and meaty, but ultimately I knew too many would be bad for me.

“Defending Jacob” by William Landry is a legal thriller. This is a new genre for me – I haven’t read a courtroom drama before, though I watch some television series in that genre.

I found the legal aspect of this novel almost therapeutic. I spend quite a lot of time in Cranbrook’s courthouse to report on criminal trials and, let me tell you, those experiences are not nearly as captivating as the trial at the centre of “Defending Jacob”.

Written by a real-life former United States Assistant District Attorney, “Defending Jacob” is told from the perspective of fictional Assistant District Attorney Andrew Barber.

When a 14-year-old boy is stabbed to death walking through a park on his way to school one morning, Barber is in charge of the investigation.

But the plot thickens when Barber’s own son Jacob, also 14, is charged with the murder. All of a sudden, Andy is forced to play for the other team, as his family crumbles around the allegation while they desperately try to clear Jacob’s name.

There are more twists in this story than in a Chubby Checker song, so I can’t say much more about the plot. Much of the novel takes place in the courtroom – during Jacob’s trial and, mysteriously, six months later during a grand jury that Andy is a witness in. It’s not until the end of the novel that the significance is revealed.

But for all that scene-setting, this story is not just about the legal aspect. Really, at its core, “Defending Jacob” is about what happens to a family in a cloistered community when a child is accused of an unspeakable act. Andy and his wife Laurie each handle the pressure differently; Andy refuses to accept any information that tests his faith in his son, while Laurie starts to wonder if perhaps they have made mistakes as Jacob’s parents.

The essence of “Defending Jacob” is the lengths of parental love. Landry probes the limits of that love, and painfully so. At one point the author describes a nervous tic Jacob displays where he picks at a piece of skin on his finger incessantly, worrying at it until it draws blood. From my perspective, that description was a metaphor for what the trial has done to Jacob’s parents: it picks away at their trust in their son, worrying at it until they begin to fall apart.

In many ways, this novel was captivating, even though it was also far-fetched. I was engrossed by the story; in fact, I read half of it in a single day.

At the same time, I regret becoming so engrossed in the novel because of the way it ended. The pace was… off. At first it slowly moved through Andy’s investigation then Jacob’s trial. But the story doesn’t end when the trial does, and what comes next is rapid, unexpected, and almost cruel to the reader.

After a series of brutally unexpected twists, the story simply stops. You are left with more questions than answers. You are left reeling, so much so that when I finished the book right before bed, I was unable to sleep for several hours because I was tormented by unanswered questions.

In the end, I feel a little bit ripped off by “Defending Jacob”. It let me down: I had hoped it would be a satisfying courtroom drama with a clear line of good versus evil. What I got was very different: an exploration of a family in crisis, which is no longer sure what is right and what is wrong.

Sally MacDonald is a reporter with the Cranbrook Daily Townsman