Defending Jacob: What Would You Do If Your Child Were a Murderer?

What would you do if your child had committed a crime as serious as murder?  What if that child denied it and you believed him?  This is the premise of William Landay’s book Defending Jacob (2012).  Andrew Barber is a district attorney, handling a case of a boy in his son’s class found murdered in the woods on the way to school.  As the investigation progresses, Andy’s son Jacob is accused of the crime.  Andy loses his job and spends time and money and energy to prove that his son is innocent.  His wife Laurie wants to believe that Jacob is innocent as well, but the evidence seems to be stacking up and she has a hard time dealing with the stress.


It would certainly be a stressful situation.  The family is shunned, and they feel that lies about their son are being spread throughout the town.  In fact, when Laurie runs into the dead boy’s parents at the store, she tries to commiserate with them, hoping to find some comfort in her own worry for Jacob and in the loss of their son.  However, the mother of the dead boy spits in her face.  It wouldn’t be an easy thing to forgive the boy (or parents of the boy) whom you believed murdered your child in cold blood.

The novel is intriguing.  It is written in flashbacks, with the current investigation and ensuing trial juxtaposed with the transcript of a grand jury on which Andy is testifying to the district attorney who replaced him.  These exchanges are intense, and lead us to see how much the new district attorney and Andy despise each other.  It is hard to tell which side to be on when it comes to the trial of Jacob Barber.  Is he innocent or guilty?

Spoiler alert!  I have decided to warn you, since the ending has a twist that you may want to discover for yourself.  Of course, many of the discussion forums online said this ending was obvious.

In the end, the charges against Jacob are dropped because of a connection to the mob.  You see, Andy’s father, whom he has never known, is a convinced murderer, and there is some talk throughout the novel of a “murder gene” and the possibility that violence or psychopathic tendencies are inherited.  Andy’s family has a history of this.  But this mob connection frames a local pedophile for the murder by staging his suicide with a confession note.

Jacob is free!  The family can go back to normal.  We can believe that perhaps he didn’t do it after all and that the mob acted too quickly.  A not-guilty verdict would have certainly come had the trial played out to the end.

Or would it?

The Barbers go on vacation, where Jacob takes up with a girl his age.  She ends up missing.  (It reminded me of the Natalie Holloway case.)  Jacob is suspected of having something to do with her disappearance, but it is never proved nor is a body found.

When the Barbers return home, Laurie does what she thinks is necessary.  She kills her own son!  She does.  She takes him in the car, doesn’t remind him to buckle up, and goes barreling into a concrete barrier at over 100 mph.  She survives and Jacob doesn’t.  Did she do the “right” thing?  Is there a “right” in this situation?

How would you react?

Now, I must mention my blogging friend Cecilia at Only You.  She recommended this book to me when I posted about The Dinner.  The premises of both books are similar.  If you like my blog, you’ll probably like hers.  She posts about books and motherhood and life in general, and I find her blog compelling.  Check her out at

55 thoughts on “Defending Jacob: What Would You Do If Your Child Were a Murderer?

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  1. Sounds like an intriguing read. Another similarly themed book is The Good Father by Noah Hawley about the fallout when a man’s son kills a presidential candidate. As the mother of three year old twins, I don’t think I could do what the mother in this case does, but hey, you would have to be faced with something like that before you would know how you would really react.

    1. Ooh, that sounds interesting. And I agree that you really have to be faced with a situation before you can guess how you’ll act. Sometimes I surprise myself, and other times I really disappoint myself with my whiny reactions!

  2. I listened to the audiobook of this a few months ago and I really loved it! I’m glad to read you didn’t see the ending coming because it took me by surprise! I really enjoyed the flashbacks as a way of telling the story. Thank you for posting!

  3. Goodness, that sounds like a rather grim book! I suppose it is a thought-provoking premise but I think I’ll give this one a miss.

    Thanks for the blog recommendation. I like the sound of Cecilia’s blog.

  4. I read this book last year and was so intrigued by the plot line. I thought it was a good read and it was definitely filled with suspense. You find yourself wanting Jacob to be innocent but unable to believe he is. I can’t even fathom what I would do in such a situation!

    What I really found interesting in this book was the talk about the murder gene. I wondered if there were any scientific studies going on in regards to this. THIS is a wild thought and truly makes you think about the nature versus nurture theory. Imagine if we all got genetic testing before we got married and imagine if you had fallen in love with someone who carried a murder gene? Could you marry them, knowing you might produce a child with that gene, a child who could grow up to be murderer? Scary stuff!

    1. It is scary! It brings up some ethical issues of genetic testing. Would knowing something like that mean that parents would abort? And yes, I agree it was a good read and suspenseful. I kept going back and forth between being on Jacob’s side and then doubting him.

  5. Emily, I don’t know if I can read this. Just reading the title made me shudder. I know how I feel when I know my child lied to me. I still . love him/ her, but feel heartsick. Yet, for one of them to do something unimaginable, I just cannot mentally go there. I would not wish this on any parent. BTG

  6. This sounds like a very complicated and intriguing book. Answers to moral questions often lie in a grey zone. I am particularly intrigued by the mother’s behavior and her own conclusions to her son’s guilt. After all, her son might have inherited the “murder gene” from her.

  7. I liked Defending Jacob a lot, as a story and as a question to the reader about what he/she would do in Laurie and Andy’s situation, much as you’ve posed here. I think Laurie does what she does out of fear and guilt, fear of what Jacob might do next and guilt that she didn’t do enough to prevent what he did before, and probably guilt about her own involvement in the crime. I don’t believe Laurie’s actions in the end can be defended by any of these reasons. Perhaps it’s her that holds the so-called “murder gene.”

    1. Ha! That is an interesting twist on the plot. I didn’t read Laurie as having the murder gene, but perhaps she proves that murder isn’t genetic but instead circumstantial. Along these lines, I thought the novel raised issues of when is it “right” to kill. I think we have particular boundaries in our societies of the “right” to kill if one is in law enforcement and the idea that killing is forbidden if not sanctioned by the state. I’m glad you liked this one! It was certainly intriguing.

      1. I see what you are saying about the issue of whether it is “right” to kill if state sanctioned or not. It is an intriguing question. I’m not a mother myself yet, but I don’t believe I could do what Laurie does and live with myself even if it was somehow socially (forget legally for the moment) “right” to take matters into our own hands.

  8. Oh, thank you so much for the kind words and for mentioning my blog, Emily! I had completely forgotten that I’d recommended Defending Jacob to you. I’m glad you read and enjoyed it!

    I am not sure what I’d do in that situation…I really have no idea. I don’t know if I would do what the mother did at the end though I’ve learned to not judge other parents. The mother really was pushed to the breaking point in so many ways. I honestly don’t know if I would have the stomach to survive something like this.

    I also found compelling the different ways in which the two parents coped. The father was in such denial and it was almost painful to read his narration as the book went on.

    1. Yes, it was painful and hard to read how both parents coped. I agonized over how I would feel or act in this situation and I have no idea. I do know that I’m a stickler for taking responsibility for one’s actions, so I would encourage that but it would be hard to see your child go through this and realize that he or she might not feel any remorse! And you are welcome for the mention. I love your blog!

      1. It would be so frightening to discover that your child is a psychopath! But in that case I would really want him to get help.

        I’ve really admired your blog ever since I found it, so it means a lot to hear your words 🙂

  9. I can’t imagine ever wavering in loyalty to my kid in this situation. I kind of wish I didn’t read the spoiler and got the book instead! I’d still read it though. Great review.

  10. wow amiga
    i’m so happy to have a spare five herer at a restaurant table as i travel today, but wow, what a story! i am grateful for the spoiler, as the odds of reading the book anytime soon – or later! – are low. i will ponder this story as i travel today…

  11. Wow. I can’t imagine what I would do if this happened to me. I feel terrible if my child even says something hurtful to someone. And thanks for the spoiler. I think if I read this book I would rather know what’s going to happen.

  12. Eeek! This would be too stressful for me to read, and I’m grateful you shared spoilers. Sounds fascinating — my wife, who reads horror more than lit fic, joked when she was reading We Need to Talk About Kevin that she didn’t understand why the mother didn’t just kill the kid when she sensed he was evil — that’s what mothers are supposed to do!

      1. YES. If you liked this and The Dinner, I think you’ll ‘like’ Kevin. It’s the letters of a wife to her estranged husband after their son is arrested for a school shooting. She talks about how this happened, and her own complicated feelings about motherhood and marriage, etc. I found it too dark and messed up for my tastes, but I think you might enjoy it. Or enjoy it as much as one can!

  13. A dark subject, an ending that you don’t see coming, and an interesting technique of using trial transcripts? That sounds awesome! I will add that to my growing, monstrous pile of a TBR list. The cover looks frightening! I might have to cover it up so I’ll be able to opening it up without getting the heebie-jeebies. Haha!

  14. Yiiiikes — yes, thanks for the spoilers — I’ll pass on this one. But it’s an interesting question: what would you do if your child turned out to be a sociopath? I mean, practically speaking, wouldn’t you try therapy or a psychiatric drug regiment? I suppose it would be different if there were an imminent threat to other people, but . . . . I don’t know. I think I’ll stick with “Yikes.”

    1. That pretty much sums it up. Glad it isn’t me! And yes, you would think therapy and/or drug treatments would come first. I think they did some of that when he was younger, on a small scale, like a school evaluation or something. I can’t remember now, but you certainly wouldn’t jump to murder!

      1. We Need to Talk About Kevin was a GREAT book. Shocking, but a good read. (really, really shocking). Deals with Nature or Nurture — which one turns a human being into a lunatic. (or both??)

  15. Great questions! Honestly, I have no idea how I would respond. I’ve wondered about this book for a while but stayed away from it due to my legal training. It can be difficult for me to look at these situations with an objective eye. I’m also not a mother so I can’t draw from those experiences. I guess that I would have to just have to be in the situation to see how I would react. Based on your review I will definitely be giving this one a second look. Thanks!

    1. I would be interested in knowing how your legal training affects your view of books like this. How accurate are they? My dad is a retired police sergeant and he doesn’t like cop dramas on TV because they are so unrealistic.

  16. This book, based upon your review, reminds me a little of We Need To Talk About Kevin, which has a similar premise in that the narrator has a son who killed others (Including her daughter, his sister). The reactions of the communities in both books sounds similar. Both books pose the question of what a parent would do if there was a strong chance (in Kevin’s case, a likelihood) of his or her child being a killer.

    I am starting a book club and I might bump this book up a notch on our choices of what to read this year. Sounds like great fodder for conversation.

    1. Definitely a conversation starter. All of these comments about the Kevin book make me want to read it. I am going to see if my library has it. Thanks!

  17. It’s all well and good to give a book review but telling us the ending is Morally wrong for a book critic! (AS far as I’m concerned)

  18. OH my gosh this sound liks a really good book that I would read. Thanks for posting. i don’t know wha ti would do in a situation like this. Is seems like the mob comes in out of nowhere to fix his first problem. I still can’t believe that she kills her own son, I guess that’s one way to stop her son.

  19. The premise is interesting but it also sounds awful. I don’t know how I would react. I know some people from my former church whose son committed some heinous crimes and I often wonder how they cope with that. They obviously still love him and continue to support him in jail, but the knowledge of the crimes he’s done seeps into everything. It’s something I just can’t grasp.

    1. The situation you describe sounds unimaginable, and more awful than the book since it is real. I think with this fictional account I was able to distance myself quite easily and just think hypothetically, but knowing somebody who has gone through this seems like it would feel more real. You are right: I don’t think any of us can truly grasp it without experience.

  20. I was JUST going to recommend The Dinner to you (since it is so similar) and saw that you read that as well. I enjoyed both Defending Jacob AND The Dinner. Great re-cap of Defending Jacob.

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