Fleur Macdonald

We need to talk about Jacob, and his dad

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No matter what anyone might say, no one ever really likes other people's children. Now, it seems, we’re not even sure if we like our own.

Culturally, children became a cause for concern during the seventies. It seemed the fruits of the loins of baby boomers had been spoiled rotten. Spates of possessed brats wreaked havoc in books and on screens. But all that was needed back then was a visit from the local exorcist and a quick mop up of green bile. Nowadays, scary kids are harder to spot. They're usually apathetic, withdrawn and speak in monosyllables.

In other words, you can never be sure whether you're living with a potential/practicing serial killer or a typical teenager.

So when they're not singing along to Justin Bieber, what exactly is mummy and daddy's little horror up to? And how far would you go to protect them?

Defending Jacob stretches the nightmare scenario to its extreme. A clever legal thriller, which reviewers in the US have compared to Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, it's the latest in a burgeoning genre: torture porn for parents.

The novel opens in court. Andy Barber is being grilled over his handling of the murder of his son's classmate, Ben Rifkin. As a respected District Attorney, he's unaccustomed to questioning from his protégé Laiudice. And as a devoted father, he's convinced that his son Jacob shouldn’t be a suspect.

The transcript of court proceedings is punctuated by Barber's memories of his son's trial twelve months ago. The two-tiered storyline ratchets up the suspense till the final curve ball: is Jacob guilty and why is Barber on the stand?

Of course, like any teenager worth his salt, Jacob doesn't make life easy for his parents: there's the knife stashed in his drawer, the gossip circulating over Facebook and, if that weren't enough, a bloody fingerprint. Luckily for him, his father is prepared to destroy evidence when it doesn’t fit his version of events. While blinkered when it comes to his son, he’s clear-eyed about the system's failings:

‘You imagine the courts are reliable, that wrong results are rare, and therefore I ought to have trusted the system. If he truly believed Jacob was innocent, you are thinking, he would have simply let the police sweep in and take whatever they liked. Here is the dirty little secret: the error rate in criminal verdicts is much higher than anyone imagines.’

Barber has a habit of ignoring the unpalatable. He’s painstakingly forgotten to mention to anyone (including his wife Laurie) in the picket-fenced, lush-lawned idyll of Newton, details of his past: a murderous grandfather and his son who'd inherited the same talent. As the lawyers scrabble to pin the crime on Jacob, the possibility of a 'murder gene' is mooted. Are both Jacob and his father programmed for violence?

Whereas Kevin, in Lionel Shriver's novel, was portrayed as a psychopathic anomaly with a bumpkin for a father, Landay's relationships are more nuanced. Jacob might not be very likable; but, in some ways, neither is his father. Barber's sadistic streak makes for a funny, if nasty, narrator:

‘I was greeted at the Magrath's apartment door by a dumpy, pie-faced woman with a frizz of unsprung black hair. She wore black spandex leggings and an oversized T-shirt with an equally oversized message stamped across the front: Don’t Give Me Attitude, I Have One of My Own. This witticism ran six full lines, drawing my eyes southward over her person from wavering bosom to detumescent belly, a journey I regret even now.’

Despite offering more ethical avenues for exploration than an entire series of The Moral Maze, Defending Jacob stays thrilling; the issues propel the twists and turns of the plot. Former lawyer Landay pinpoints the cheap shots and hard punches of legal sparring, but he also manages to capture the tribal intricacies and verbal ticks of teenagers' parallel universe, the monotony of a family quarantined from the community and the doubts that plague parents.

Landay nails it. Teenagers may be terrifying. They may bring the horrors of modern society too close to home. They may be spotty. But it doesn't mean they're murderers.

Defending Jacob by William Landay is published by Orion.