Andy Barber has been an assistant district attorney in his suburban Massachusetts county for more than twenty years. He is respected in his community, tenacious in the courtroom, and happy at home with his wife, Laurie, and son, Jacob. But when a shocking crime shatters their New England town, Andy is blindsided by what happens next: His fourteen-year-old son is charged with the murder of a fellow student.
Every parental instinct Andy has rallies to protect his boy. Jacob insists that he is innocent, and Andy believes him. Andy must. He’s his father. But as damning facts and shocking revelations surface, as a marriage threatens to crumble and the trial intensifies, as the crisis reveals how little a father knows about his son, Andy will face a trial of his own—between loyalty and justice, between truth and allegation, between a past he’s tried to bury and a future he cannot conceive.
Award-winning author William Landay has written the consummate novel of an embattled family in crisis—a suspenseful, character-driven mystery that is also a spellbinding tale of guilt, betrayal, and the terrifying speed at which our lives can spin out of control.
I don’t have a problem reading legal thrillers. I usually really enjoy them. Give me a good John Grisham any day. But there were so many legal issues I just could not get past in Defending Jacob. First and foremost, Landay spends a good chunk of the novel throwing around the idea of a crime “gene” or what recent studies have identified as the MAOA gene.
I have to admit that I’m more than a little biased in my review. To the extent that law students can have “specializations” the way that med students do, this book hits right on mine. I’ve spent my very, very short legal career studying the impact of genetics and the law, specifically in the context of criminal prosecution. I’ve taken a number of classes and working as a research assistant for a genetics law professor, spent a year working with a juvenile justice center that focuses on criminal psychology. These sound like “fluffy” topics, but they are incredibly complex subjects based in science, and just like any scientific endeavor, our knowledge is based on replicable, controlled scientific studies. Even with this experience, my working knowledge of genetics is VERY limited.
But even I know how dangerous Landay’s presumptuous and incorrect use of the MAOA gene is, especially in a criminal justice setting.
Briefly, MAOA is an enzyme involved in the breaking down of neurotransmitters, such as naturally occurring serotonin and dopamine. It is a variation of this gene that the book refers to. Low MAOA levels, combined with significant levels of abuse have been correlated with an increased rate of aggression and violent crime in men. It is important to note that is a correlation not causation and an increased rate. The total percentage still hovers between 20-40%. Understand that this means even if you have low MAOA levels and significant childhood abuse, there is still less than a 50% chance that that person has increased levels of aggression.
In addition, there are virtually unnumbered other factors that affect this interaction: high testosterone levels, mothers smoking during pregnancy, low IQ, social exclusion.
The latest case to use such genetic evidence as mitigating evidence resulted in the defendant receiving a death penalty sentence. These days it is widely regarded as a dangerous tactic and in fact, could be considered ineffective assistance of counsel and grounds for a mistrial.
The fact that Landay simply skips over this incredibly complex scientific idea, submits to fear-mongering and uses it to build suspense in his novel is beyond frustrating. The idea that a person could be convicted on the basis of having a family with a criminal past is revolting. Perhaps if the book was set in another day and age, another country or without purporting to be a legal thriller, I might be okay with the fabrication. Here it is fundamental to the story and fundamentally inappropriately used.
If you’ve read the novel you might dismiss this all because well, it doesn’t matter in the end (I won’t spoil it for you here). Which brings me to part two of my least favorite things.
Landay hands us the biggest cop-out ending of all time.
Which leaves me where at least half of the readers of Defending Jacob are. Staring at the last page going Really!? Not okay. You can’t just take the easy way out of your own book.
Would I recommend this book to a fellow law student? Absolutely NOT.
Would I recommend this book to a fellow thriller lover? Absolutely NOT.
Would I recommend this book to a general reader? Absolutely NOT because of the terrible and unbelievable characters. (Oh wait, did I not mention that before? Brief summary: prosecutor suddenly decides its okay to break all the laws, loving mother suddenly becomes a monster, etc. Every damn character did a 180 for no reason at all.)