Books

ON CRIME

‘Defending Jacob,’ ‘The Boy Who Shoots Crows,’ ‘Taken’

Many crime fiction writers have imagined the horror of losing a child. William Landay’s “Defending Jacob’’ wades into similarly dark territory, exploring the anguish of parents who discover that their child may be a murderer.

The setting is Newton. The father is Andy Barber, chief trial attorney in the Middlesex DA’s office. He’s among the first at the scene where 14-year-old Ben Rifkin is found dead with stab wounds to the chest, “as if he’d been forked by a trident.’’ Ben was a classmate of Andy’s son Jacob, and Andy’s decision to take charge of the case comes under scrutiny when evidence mounts, implicating his son.

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Haunted by the knowledge that violence runs in families, Andy gets busy doing what he calls “lawyering away at the evidence.’’ He has no illusions that criminal justice delivers just verdicts. Jacob’s mother Laurie shoulders the blame, dredging up incidents from Jacob’s childhood that she can no longer rationalize.

In riveting courtroom procedure, opposing counsel - Jacob’s unflappable defense attorney Jonathan Klein and prosecutor Neal Logiudice who’s gunning for Andy’s job - match wits. Meanwhile Jacob, in his faded hoodie, droopy jeans, and bangs covering his eyes slouches along, impervious to concern.

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One story line dramatizes the murder and its aftermath. A second presents grand jury proceedings a year later, the subject of which the reader only gradually comes to understand. Even with unexpected twists and turns, the two narratives interlock like the teeth of a zipper, building to a tough and unflinching finale. This novel has major motion picture written all over it.

Randall Silvis’s “The Boy Who Shoots Crows’’ tells of another lost boy. Twelve-year-old Jesse Rankin is known to his neighbors for roaming the woods surrounding Amish farmland and shooting crows. He’s last seen driving a tractor in a field just beyond the house where Charlotte Dunleavy lives. The reclusive painter is a refugee from the city and a broken marriage. The story begins with county Sheriff Mark Gatesman knocking at her door.

She says she remembers seeing Jesse, a handsome boy with “sleepy eyes’’ and a “hooded gaze,’’ disappear into the woods. But beyond that, an intense migraine has left her with “splinters’’ of memory. Gatesman, who recently lost his wife and daughter, is drawn to Charlotte, “moved by the bruises and scars life left behind.’’

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From the opening page, Silvis allows the story to unfold in rich, often elegiac yet vivid and painterly prose. Charlotte looks out at the field beyond her barn and sees “sfumato,’’ da Vinci’s technique that “smokes and blurs the trees.’’ Persistent images of crows haunt the pages - small black shadows that “shot up and out of the bare branches, became a pair of black wings’’; “a dead crow splayed across a field of blood-specked white.’’

“The Boy’’ is a potent exploration of culpability and redemption that rewards the patient reader.

A longtime fan of Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novels, I found “Taken’’ difficult to get my arms around. The setup is a typical set piece for a PI novel. Two college-age kids, Jack Berrman and Krista Morales, in the wrong place (the Anza-Borrego Desert) at the wrong time (dead of night) are captured by bajadores, the worst kind of criminals who steal illegal immigrants from their “coyote’’ guides, hold them for ransom, and then murder them.

Nita Morales, Krista’s mother, a wealthy businesswoman who is herself an illegal immigrant, hires Cole to find her daughter. Krista is straight from central casting - a cum laude college senior with a “heart-shaped face, golden skin, and a smile that dimpled her right cheek.’’ Jack is a USC dropout. They - and Cole - soon realize just how much trouble the pair have gotten themselves into.

While the novel delivers exciting action, crackling dialogue, and plenty of rhetorical outrage, there’s not a whole lot of emotional depth. When the book’s trio of invincibles - Cole, Pike, and gonzo mercenary Jon Stone - charge into the desert, the outcome is never in doubt.

A glut of viewpoints defuses rather than amps the tension, robbing plot twists of their surprise. Compounding this is a zigzagging timeline. Section titles (like “Elvis Cole: Four days before he is taken’’) are clearly intended to keep the reader grounded. But in the end, the pieces feel roughly cobbled rather than skillfully woven together, and reading involves start, stops, and head scratching.

Hallie Ephron’s “Come and Find Me’’ has been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.
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