Not long ago, one of my favorite authors recommended a book by one of his favorite authors. Joseph Finder has never let me down. It was he who led me to Lisa Gardner’s Love You More, so I didn’t have any qualms about buying Defending Jacob, by William Landay, based on Joe’s say-so. And again, he didn’t let me down.
This is a “mind” novel, not a high-action, high-tension thriller, but it’s a page turner just the same. Landay’s writing is impeccable, his characterization is phenomenal, his use of writer’s tricks is masterful. It was wonderful to simply turn off my editor side and enjoy an exquisitely crafted novel.
In A.D.A. Andy Barber’s town of Newton, Mass., a fourteen-year-old boy is found in the woods, murdered. A schoolmate of Andy’s son, Jake. Soon Jake is accused. Did he do it?
Depends on who you listen to throughout the pages of the book. The entire novel is told in the father’s POV, and his bias toward his son is so obvious, he’s rendered unreliable. Still, if you listen to him, of course Jake didn’t do it. And there’s enough ambiguity to allow the reader to believe this. There is an alternate suspect. The case is weak, but not totally impossible. The ADA prosecuting the case has an obvious hatred for his predecessor, who is now sitting at the defendant’s table as second chair in his son’s trial. It’s possible Jake is being railroaded.
But the story isn’t just about whether Jake did it. It’s also a psychological study into the effects of the accusation on each member of the family–Andy himself, Jake, and Laurie, the mother, wife, hub of the family–as interpreted through Andy. The portrayal is in-depth, realistic, and heart-wrenching–and a sign of the author’s mastery of characterization.
A parallel thread runs through the story, a thread in which Andy is testifying to a grand jury. As the book progresses, it becomes apparent that his testimony has nothing to do with Jake’s trial, though clues to many questions about Jake’s trial arise through this testimony. Still, what is the author up to?
This book is so layered, so intricate, I can’t imagine that Landay wrote it without first outlining it within an inch of its life. By the time he finished structuring it, he undoubtedly knew what would happen in the third paragraph of page 257 before he even wrote page one. Seriously. I can’t imagine an SOTP’er crafting this, not without substantial rewrite.
Score one for Ollie Outliner.
As with many of the books I present in this blog, this one is both for reading and studying. Authors would do well to dissect Landay’s technique and learn from it.