When children commit violent crimes against other children, it often generates national headlines. When the shock subsides, it leaves many of us desperately seeking some rational explanation for the underlying cause of such aggression. But some of us will be satisfied only by seeking justice for the victim and punishment for the offender.
In “Defending Jacob,” about a 14-year-old boy accused of murdering his classmate, Boston author William Landay brilliantly weaves a story that leaves his reader hungering for a little of both.
Landay will speak about his novel in a series of public appearances this summer, including July 25 at the Duxbury Free Library.
“I think we tend to consume these kind of stories because they tell us something about ourselves,’’ Landay said in a recent interivew. “When we read about disturbing or violent behavior, we want to make sense of it because we recognize something that could well exist within ourselves.
“These are human behaviors after all. . . . It may be easy to just label people ‘monsters,’ but we all share commonality with both saints and sinners.”
In this story, set in Newton, Ben Rivkin is stabbed to death in a local park, and fellow classmate Jacob Barber, son of first assistant district attorney Andy Barber, stands accused of murdering him.
When called in on the case, Andy is determined to pursue a lead about a pedophile as a serious suspect, until he is blindsided by the discovery that his son’s fingerprint has been found on the murdered boy’s shirt.
In addition, troubling Facebook postings begin to emerge, suggesting that Jacob not only has potential motive but even possesses a knife. And to the Barbers’ horror, they learn that Jacob’s best friend and classmates have always found Jacob more than a little strange.
Yet, in spite of the growing evidence, Andy Barber remains convinced of his son’s innocence and rallies to his aid.
The question Landay raises is whether parents ever completely know their own children. Don’t all children seem a bit “strange” when they enter adolescence and become simultaneously more vulnerable, yet more inscrutable and more private about what’s going on in their inner life? Isn’t Jacob just a typical teen, or could he be a seriously troubled young man and perhaps even a killer?
As Landay skillfully delves into Jacob’s upbringing and character, and Andy Barber narrates the unfolding courtroom drama, a shocking familial history is also revealed. What begins as a suspenseful mystery becomes a tense family drama as well.
Who better to weave this story than a writer who has both firsthand courtroom experience and is the father of two young children?
Born in Brookline, educated at Yale and Boston College Law School, Landay was an assistant district attorney for about seven years and a courtroom litigator in Middlesex County. He wrote two successful earlier novels, “Mission Flats,” published in 2003 and named the best debut crime novel of the year, and “The Strangler,” published in 2007.
When asked about the source of inspiration for “Defending Jacob,” Landay said: “While I may have gotten seeds from both real-life cases and headlines, and certainly my consciousness and sensibility come through in the writing, both the story and character of Andy Barber do not map to my life directly.”
Yet, he added, “I certainly knew compassionate career prosecutors like Andy Barber,” and would have “loved to continue to become a trial lawyer like Andy Barber who is genuinely a master of his craft, incredibly talented, smart, humble, and loyal to a fault.”
But while drawing from his real-life experiences, Landay said, “My real goal was to write a story that honors both the readers’ intellect and the desire to be entertained.”
Landay said he chose a young teenager as the main suspect because “I wanted to create a character who had the capacity to inflict hurt in the world, but also find the point of maximum vulnerability.”
Most important, Landay said, “ I didn’t want Jacob to be portrayed as a monster, but rather, as an ordinary teenager who is complex; a boy who is really hard to fully know and comprehend, like any adolescent. . . .
“I think all parents know the feeling of being excluded from their child’s life at a certain point when they begin to develop this private sphere of thinking and behaving . . . and every parent can probably relate to the problem of feeling that maybe they don’t really know who their child is or what they are capable of.”
In the end, said Landay, this is a story about “what it means to come to terms with parenting, growing up, and even one’s own childhood.”
One question it will inevitably raise, Landay added, “is how far does a parent’s responsibility go to protect their own child, but also what is the responsibility of a citizen to protect society. “
William Landay will speak about “Defending Jacob,’’ at 7 p.m. on July 25 at the Duxbury Free Library. The event is sponsored by Westwinds Bookshop of Duxbury.
Nancy Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.