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Slain Student Leaves Prosecutor Targeting Son in Landay Novel

The cover jacket of
The cover jacket of "Defending Jacob," by William Landay. Source: Random House via Bloomberg

Feb. 13 (Bloomberg) -- What would you do if your 14-year-old son was arrested for murder?

Andy Barber, the narrator of William Landay’s smashing new novel, “Defending Jacob,” refuses to consider that he might be guilty. Andy’s wife, Laurie, thinks back to the times when Jacob’s preschool friends were mysteriously hurt around him -- falling off the monkey bars, losing control of a tricycle -- and wonders if he might actually have done it.

Taking a page from Scott Turow’s playbook, Landay has made his narrator a prosecutor. Andy is the First Assistant District Attorney for a suburban Massachusetts county. When one of Jacob’s middle-school classmates, Ben Rifkin, is found dead in the woods, stabbed while walking to school, Andy naturally takes on the investigation.

Days go by and there’s one promising lead -- a known pedophile lives nearby. But it’s also suspicious how little the kids at school seem to want to talk to the investigators.

Finally, in a nice contemporary twist, one of Jacob’s friends tells Andy to check out the “Friends of Ben Rifkin” Facebook page -- where he finds messages addressed to his own son saying things like “JB what are you mouthing off here for? go die. the world would be a better place.”

Shocked, Andy turns to Jacob’s own profile, where he finds this written by Jacob’s best friend:

“Jake, everyone knows you did it. You have a knife. I’ve seen it.”

Missing Knife

The book opens with Andy testifying before a grand jury, where he quickly admits to having thrown away the knife he found after searching Jacob’s room. Landay pulls you in with Andy’s interesting perspective as both father and prosecutor and with his own good writing:

“In the grand jury room that morning, the jurors were in a sullen, defeated mood. They sat, thirty-odd men and women who had not been clever enough to find a way out of serving, all crammed into those school chairs with teardrop-shaped desks for chair arms.”

Then you start to wonder: What happened to Jacob and his trial? Why is Andy being questioned?

Landay does a lovely job setting up the many strands of this complex novel, so I don’t want to give too much away. We soon find out that the grand jury is taking place a year after the murder, and Andy begins narrating the story of what’s happened during that time -- telling us everything as he experienced it, but clearly knowing a lot more than he’s letting on, since he’s telling it in hindsight.

Family Tensions

Family tensions arise as Laurie tries to get Andy to talk about what happens if Jacob is guilty: not found guilty by a jury, but actually guilty. Andy refuses to discuss that, and just keeps investigating the murder, determined to prove that the pedophile did it.

There’s plenty of sharp legal maneuvering from Jacob’s defense attorney, Jonathan Klein, who’s tailor-made for the inevitable movie: “With his backswept white hair, white goatee and benevolent smile, I thought there was a magical quality about him,” Andy says. (This too reminded me of Turow’s “Presumed Innocent,” with its elegant defense attorney, Sandy Stern.)

I didn’t entirely buy the “shocking twist” at the end -- that quote is from the jacket flap, so I’m not spoiling anything -- but I’m sure a lot of readers will disagree with me. That’s part of the fun.

“Defending Jacob” is published by Delacorte (421 pages, $26). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Laurie Muchnick is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this review: Laurie Muchnick in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at

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