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 The boy was often withdrawn and monosyllabic, but no more so than many other teenagers.