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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The great Austenian “Gotcha!” that (almost) no reader has seen in William’s Landay’s whodunit Defending Jacob

 WARNING: This post contains major SPOILERS about what happens in William Landay’s 2012 whodunit,  Defending Jacob, so you may not want to read below until you’ve read the novel:

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A few weeks ago, while visiting my first cousin and her husband, we were discussing literature, and they were kind enough to take the time to better understand the thrust of my literary sleuthing. As I spoke about various aspects of the shadow stories I see in the novels of Jane Austen and in the plays of Shakespeare, and elsewhere among the many authors I’ve studied over the past decade, I kept coming back to my mantra:
readers should not be passive and simply assume that the author is going to lead them by the hand at the end of the story, and debrief all of the mysteries that have been raised in the reader’s mind during the telling of the tale. That’s not the way real life works—we have no omniscient narrator perched on our shoulder whispering the “truth” about what happens in life---so why should we expect it in a novel or a play? That certainly won’t teach us how to live real life. And that’s why I believe Austen, Shakespeare, and some other authors wrote their novels to be interpretable in more than one way—to teach readers to read their own lives more suspiciously, and therefore more insightfully.

That was when they mentioned to me that they had recently read an excellent 2012 courtroom whodunit,  Defending Jacob,  written by a former DA named William Landay, who seemed to be following in the successful footsteps of Scott Turow--it was a genuine NY Times best seller which had its film rights sold to Warner Brothers. Not bad!

They gave me a brief synopsis of the plot of Defending Jacob, which I could not repeat to you now from memory, but I know was more or less like the following synopsis taken by me from a 2012 review (by April Henry) at (and this is my final alert re SPOILERS!):

“When 14-year-old Ben Rifkin is found stabbed to death in a wooded park, assistant district attorney Andy Barber is called to the scene. The most likely suspect seems to be a pedophile who lives in a nearby apartment and is known to visit the park. Then a bloody fingerprint links the dead boy to another 14-year-old and fellow-student -- Andy's only child, Jacob. Andy takes a leave of absence and sets about clearing his son's name. But is Jacob really innocent?  It turns out that Ben, who was both popular and had a mean streak, had been tormenting Jacob. As Andy works to find evidence to save his son, he also learns some disquieting truths. And Andy himself has something he has hidden: violence runs like a dark red vein through his family tree. In fact, Andy's father is in prison for stabbing a young woman to death. As the time to trial grinds on, Andy's family finds out more about his secrets, just as he finds out about theirs. How well do we really know our own family -- and do we bear any responsibility for their actions? “

My immediate reaction upon hearing that plotline, given my hypervigilance for shadow stories which the author has hidden in plain sight, was that the murderer was probably the father and ADA, Andy Barber, who was the first person narrator of the story! It’s a trick that has been out there at least since Agatha Christie staked her claim to detective-story fame with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

We moved on to other subjects, but  as soon as I returned home from my trip and was back at my desktop, I went to, and it didn’t take me long to find a reader review which said exactly what I had imagined (sight unseen, as to the novel) as possibly being Landay’s sly secret game, if he was that kind of author:

Kaylie on Feb. 3, 2015 had written:  “I just finished this book yesterday and I was curious to think what other people thought about who was guilty and who was innocent and there are some things brought up that I didn't really think of. But I honestly thought the dad did it just because of the murder gene, and how he said he had never hurt a fly. And because he was a DA, he knew the ins and outs of the legal system, when and what evidence to get rid of and just because he was so sure his son did not do it. Also, he knew how to answer questions correctly so people never suspected his guilt. And the scene at the end when Ben's dad had that knife and Andy said he recognized it, that just stuck out for me and made me think Andy did it. I then think that Jacob did kill Hope because he was constantly fantasizing about murder and after going through the whole trial, he was so tempted to. He was in a foreign country and he was unknown so he took the opportunity. I was disappointed with the ending at first, how Jacob's mom killed him but now it makes sense. She knew he killed Hope, deep down. So she wanted Jacob to know during his last minutes of life that he was with someone who truly loved him, rather than having to be in prison his whole life. I think all three of them committed crimes, all because of that "murder gene", it being ironic how all three of them did something. That's just my interpretation!”

Sounded very promising to me---and now, three weeks later, after I’ve read and word searched Defending Jacob to my satisfaction, I can say to Kaylie that, beyond a reasonable doubt, William Landay did indeed write this whodunit such that it could be read to portray an alternative fictional universe in which the murderer was indeed the father, and not the son!

I say that because during the past few days I have collected a dozen different passages from the novel, in which I find the telltale pattern of subtle textual clues, which all point to Andy Barber as the murderer of Ben Rifkin, a murder which he commits in a rage while “defending Jacob”, i.e., while savagely attacking the boy who was tormenting and bullying Jacob.

They’re exactly the same sorts of textual winks and hints which I’ve found everywhere in Jane Austen’s novels and Shakespeare’s plays, and the key point in being able to see them is to read the novel AS IF Andy Barber was the killer, and see what you see with that assumption held firmly in mind.

To give just one example, when you’re (re)reading the novel, focus on the word “steel” whenever it appears in the text, and think about that word in relation to the murder weapon, which of course is a steel knife. But I will refrain from giving you all the evidence I mined from the text of the novel, so as not to spoil your fun in reading the novel against the grain of believing the narrator Andy to be honest and forthcoming with you.
What I will give you here and now, however, is the one passage early in the novel, which constitutes what I call a metafictional alert from William Landay to the reader, when he gives Andy Barber the following extended aside to the reader:

“Somebody stitched three holes in a line across that boy’s chest and left nothing to indicate who or why.
The tantalizing anxiety this caused—in me, in the detectives working the case, even in the town-was beginning to grate. I felt like I was being toyed with, purposely manipulated. A secret was being kept from me. Jacob and his friends have a slang term, mindfuck, which describes tormenting someone by misleading him, usually by withholding a crucial fact. A girl pretends to like a boy—that is a mindfuck. A movie reveals an essential fact only at the end, which changes or explains everything that went before—The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects, for example, are what Jake calls mindfuck movies. The Rifkin case was beginning to feel like a mindfuck. The only way to explain the complete dead silence in the aftermath of the murder was that someone had orchestrated all this. Someone out there was watching, enjoying our ignorance, our foolishness. In the investigation phase of a violent crime, the detective often conceives a righteous hate for the criminal before he has any idea who the criminal is. I did not usually feel this sort of passion about any case, but I disliked this murderer already. For murdering, yes, but also for fucking with us. For refusing to submit. For controlling the situation. When I did finally learn his name and face, I would merely adjust my contempt to fit him.”

In short, this is, I suggest to you, William Landay himself, telling you, the reader, to watch out, because Defending Jacob is another “mindfuck” story, just like The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects, except that in Landay’s novel (as in all of Jane Austen’s novels), there is no explicit cry of “Gotcha!” from the author—he leaves it to the reader to decide if it is really Andy, and not Jacob, who killed Ben Rifkin.

And by the way, I see Landay as having slyly turned Turow’s Presumed Innocent on its head—i.e.,  in Turow’s novel, the Prosecutor is accused of murder but you find out in the end that it was his wife whodunit—whereas in Defending Jacob, the Prosecutor is never accused, his son is—but then, if you read between the lines, as I did, you realize that the Prosecutor DID do it!

And one other bit of data, to be given whatever weight you wish. The following is the exchange of Tweets I initiated with William Landay the day after I heard about Defending Jacob:

Me: “My cousin told me your novel's plot, and I replied "The father did it". Am i right? ;) “
Landay: “Maybe, maybe...”

Just like a lawyer (which many of you know I am myself) to speak out of both sides of his…. keyboard at the same time!  

Oh….I almost forgot—there is actually a Jane Austen allusion that I believe Landay cleverly hid in plain sight in Defending Jacob. It’s in the following dialog among Andy, his wife Laurie, and the shrink they’ve hired as a fallback plan in case they need to make an insanity defense for their son—I think any Janeite among you reading this can immediately spot the veiled allusion to a very famous passage in an Austen novel:

“Andy,” the doctor purred, “let her speak. You’ll have your turn. Go on, Laurie.”
“Yes, go on, Laurie. Tell her how Jacob pulled the wings off flies.”
“Doctor, you’ll have to forgive him. He doesn’t believe in this—in talking honestly about private things.”
“That’s not true. I do believe in it.”
“Then why don’t you ever do it?”
“No, this is called talking, Andy, not complaining. And IT’S A SKILL, NOT A TALENT; YOU COULD LEARN IT IF YOU WANTED TO. You can talk for hours in court.”
“That’s different.”
“Because a lawyer doesn’t have to be honest?”
“No, it’s just a different situation, Laurie. There’s a time and place for everything.”
“My God, Andy, we’re in a psychiatrist’s office. If this isn’t the time and place…”
“Yes, but we’re here for Jacob, not us. You need to remember that.”
“…You don’t need to defend your son, not in this room. I only want the truth about him.”
I made a sour face. The truth about Jacob. Who could say what that was? What was the truth about anyone?”

Of course, you can guess that I see this as an homage to the following memorable repartee between another narcissistic man and the woman who is attracted to him but can also call him out on his stuff:

"Pray let me hear what you have to accuse him of," cried Colonel Fitzwilliam. "I should like to know how he behaves among strangers."
"You shall hear then—but prepare yourself for something very dreadful. The first time of my ever seeing him in Hertfordshire, you must know, was at a ball—and at this ball, what do you think he did? He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner. Mr. Darcy, you cannot deny the fact."
"I had not at that time the honour of knowing any lady in the assembly beyond my own party."
"True; and nobody can ever be introduced in a ball-room. Well, Colonel Fitzwilliam, what do I play next? My fingers wait your orders."
"Perhaps," said Darcy, "I should have judged better, had I sought an introduction; but I am ill-qualified to recommend myself to strangers."
"Shall we ask your cousin the reason of this?" said Elizabeth, still addressing Colonel Fitzwilliam. "Shall we ask him why a man of sense and education, and who has lived in the world, is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?"
"I can answer your question," said Fitzwilliam, "without applying to him. It is because he will not give himself the trouble."
"I CERTTAINLY HAVE NOT THE TALENT which some people possess," said Darcy, "of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done."
"My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I WILL NOT TAKE THE TROUBLE OF PRACTISING. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution."
Darcy smiled and said, "You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers."

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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