In the publicity material for William Landay’s “Defending Jacob,” its publisher and several advance readers liken the novel to Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent,” arguably the finest of American legal thrillers. The hype is justified. I don’t think Landay’s novel has quite the elegance or gravitas of Turow’s, but it’s an exceptionally serious, suspenseful, engrossing story that deserves and should achieve a large audience.
The similarities start with the fact that Turow and Landay are lawyers who began as prosecutors, and each novel is narrated by a prosecutor who finds himself in grave legal trouble. Each book delves deep into the character of its protagonist and his family, and both offer caustic but informed indictments of our legal system. Finally, both provide a stunning ending. If you remember the surprise at the end of “Presumed Innocent,” be warned that the outcome of “Defending Jacob” is even more unexpected.
The two novels differ in one important regard. Turow’s Rusty Sabich was charged with murdering his lover. Landay’s Andy Barber, a prosecutor in Newton, Mass., has his world upended when his 14-year-old son is accused of murder. Before that calamity, Andy and his wife, Laurie, had shared a comfortable, happy suburban lifestyle with Jacob, their only child. The boy was often withdrawn and monosyllabic, but no more so than many other teenagers.
One of Jacob’s classmates is found stabbed to death in a park near their middle school. Andy, called to the scene by police, suspects a pedophile who lives nearby. However, his son soon admits that he found the body but insists that he told no one for fear of becoming involved. Andy is taken off the case, and his rival in the prosecutor’s office takes over. A classmate tells police that Jacob had a knife and a motive. The evidence against him is ambiguous but might be enough for the zealous, politically ambitious prosecutor to win a conviction.
As Jacob’s trial nears, Landay draws an agonizing portrait of a family in distress. Even close friends desert them; Laurie, a cheerful, loving but fragile woman, begins to crack under the pressure. A sullen Jacob holes up in his room but posts messages on Facebook — jokes, he says — that could be used against him. Andy knows that, whatever the outcome of the trial, he’ll never again work as a prosecutor and the family will be ruined financially. Beautiful suburban life has become a nightmare.
There’s a further complication when a secret from Andy’s past emerges. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all murderers. Andy barely knew his father, who vanished when he was 5 and is now an old man serving a life sentence. Laurie is furious that Andy never told her about his family’s dark history. Andy insists that he’s never been drawn to violence, but, of course, we know that first-person narrators are notoriously unreliable. The prosecutors may argue that Jacob inherited a “murder gene.” Here, Landay has said, he is exploring the “emerging science of ‘behavioral genetics.’ ” Is it possible, he asks, that some people lack free will and are driven toward violence by genetic inheritance?
Genetics aside, two questions keep the reader racing along: Did Jacob kill his classmate, and, if not, who did? As the trial begins, we realize that it may settle nothing. Jacob could be a killer that the jury will set free, or he could be an innocent boy about to be sent to prison for life. Most readers will identify with the anguish of parents who love their son but finally must admit that he could be guilty as charged.
The ability to create original, even astonishing plots is not evenly bestowed on writers. Far too often, readers see what’s coming a mile away. But of late, I’ve devoured two novels that provide endings as brilliant, as shocking as any I can recall. One is “Defending Jacob.” The other is Stephen King’s current bestseller, “11/22/63.” Each ending is utterly unpredictable, but there is this difference: King’s ending offers a fascinating fantasy about the possibility of altering history; Landay’s, by contrast, is all too real, all too painful, all too haunting.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.
By William Landay
421 pp. $26