The Pequod Review:
The main character in William Landay's third novel, Defending Jacob, is not fourteen-year old Jacob Barber, who is accused of murder and whose trial is the centerpiece of the book. Instead, it is his father (Andy Barber), an assistant district attorney in Newton (Mass.), who narrates the story in the first person. Andy is initially assigned to the case — one that involves the murder of Ben Rifkin, a classmate of Jacob's — but when evidence emerges that implicates Jacob, Andy is forced to recuse himself while undertaking a number of ethically questionable actions. As the story unfolds, it becomes a gripping mix of family drama, courtroom thriller and pop criminology.
Landay is a very good writer, better than most of his mystery/crime peers, with sharp observations undoubtedly drawn from his own experiences as a district attorney:
With a series of nods – the judge to the clerk, the clerk to the court officer – the potential jurors were fetched from one of the lower floors. They shuffled in, rubbernecking the courtroom like tourists wandering through Versailles. The chamber must have disappointed them. It was a grungy courtroom in the modern style: high boxy ceilings, minimalist furnishings of maple wood and black laminate, muted indirect lighting. Two flags drooped from listing flagpoles, an American flag to the judge's right and the flag of Massachusetts to his left. The American flag at least had its original vivid colors; the state flag, once pure white, had faded to a dingy ivory. Otherwise there was nothing, no statue, no chiseled Latin inscription, no portrait of a forgotten judge, nothing to relieve the Scandinavian austerity of the design. I had been in this courtroom a thousand times, but the jurors' disappointment made me look at it, finally, and realize how exhausted it all appeared.
Jonathan [Jacob's attorney] nodded but offered no comment. We were sitting at the round oak table in his office, the only room he had that was large enough to accommodate our entire family. The young associate, Ellen, was there too, assiduously scribbling notes. It occurred to me that she was there to witness the conversation in order to protect Jonathan, not to help us. He was creating a record just in case he ever fell out with his clients and there was a dispute about what he had been told.
The book is marred somewhat by its unrealistic dialogue, as well as a plot twist that is not altogether convincing given how little has been done to fully develop the characters involved in it. Nonetheless, this is a very good crime novel — suspenseful and entertaining — and it fully earns the "compulsive page-turner" blurbs splashed across its paperback cover.