My Son is a Murderer (Maybe): William Landay, “Defending Jacob”


I am not spoiling the plot in my discussion below. The events I mention occur early in the novel.

I have a confession to make. I am a book snob. The vast majority of novels I read are classified as “literary fiction” or “classics” or “books that are supposed to be good for you but are actually boring, confusing, and/or depressing.” Occasionally, I read mystery novels set in foreign countries just for fun, but I don’t expect anything from them behind light entertainment and some cool references to exotic places.

Therefore, when one of my book clubs picked William Landay’s Defending Jacob to read, I wasn’t expecting much. I was wrong. Defending Jacob, written by a former district attorney, is indeed a fast-paced crime thriller and a total page-turner. But it is much more than that. It is also a thoughtful, probing exploration of love, family, responsibility, and self-deception. It made me think and it made me feel. I highly recommend it, not only for crime thriller fans, but also for book snobs like myself.

Imagine you and your spouse are good, law-abiding, tax-paying, solid citizens who have done everything right. You are a district attorney whose career is devoted to prosecuting criminals so that you can keep your community safe. You and your spouse devoted your lives to raising a child lovingly, in a good “child-friendly” suburb. Family is everything to you.

Then one day, your 14-year old child is accused of murdering a classmate. What do you do? This scenario is the premise of Defending Jacob. While the legal drama is part of the plot, the most interesting thread to me is the effect the accusation has on the family.   Andy Barber, the father and narrator of the story, responds with a categorical “no.” No, my son did not commit a crime. He is innocent. Someone else did it. End of story. This is his position and he never wavers from it.

His wife, Laurie, has a different reaction. While she mostly believes her son did not do it, she has nagging doubts. She starts probing in their past, remembering the times Jacob behaved badly as a child and wonders if those were signs of something deeply wrong. Andy thinks she is being ridiculous. Jacob was just being a normal boy. Laurie keeps asking questions and is not reassured by the answers. What if Jacob DID do it? Wouldn’t that mean they as parents were responsible in some way? The agony of grappling with these questions derails Laurie long before the trial concludes. We know that no matter what the outcome of the trial is, she—and their family—will never be the same.

The questions that torment Laurie still reverberate in my mind days after reading this novel, and I don’t even have children.

What about you? How would you react if your beloved child were accused of a heinous crime? Would you be an Andy or a Laurie? What is the right response?



Author: DebraB

I am a Professor of English at Concordia University-St. Paul. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My research interests include American literature, contemporary literature, Middle Eastern literature, African literature and feminist theory.

3 thoughts on “My Son is a Murderer (Maybe): William Landay, “Defending Jacob””

  1. Debra, this is one we don’t wish on anyone, especially our own. I do not think they would ever do something like this. Yet, to be truthful, I don’t know how I would react as the facts come in. My first reaction would be no, they did not do it. But, each of us are imperfect and exposed to so many stressors (especially children) which can cause emotional distress.

    I do know I would love my child no matter what. The line from “Raisin in the Sun” comes to mind – “it is easy to love someone when they are doing well. When they need you to love them is when they are at their worst.” I would support my child, yet I owe it to everyone, including the child and me, to help find the truth.

    Wow, this is a tough question to ask and answer. BTG

      1. Thanks. I probably remembered it wrong, but the gist is correct. I am debating giving the book a try, but will let you know, if I do.

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