William Landay is the author of The Strangler, a Los Angeles Times Favorite Crime Book of the Year, and Mission Flats, winner of the Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for Best First Crime Novel and a Barry Award nominee. A former district attorney who holds degrees from Yale and Boston College Law School, Landay lives in Boston, where he is at work on his next novel of suspense.
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A Conversation with William Landay
Random House Readers Circle: What was the seed of this novel? What drove you to write it? When did you ﬁrst realize that this was the story you wanted to tell?
William Landay: There was no single “seed,” honestly. I have never been the visionary sort of writer who conceives an entire novel in a lightning ﬂash of inspiration. I am more of a plodder, an experimenter. I develop my ideas slowly, by trial and error, teasing them out in draft after draft. It is a slow, tentative process, and it is ﬁlled with worry because I am never quite sure what I’m after. That is how Defending Jacob was born.
To understand where the book came from, it helps to understand where I was at the time. I had written two novels that were tradi- tional crime stories in the sense that they were set in the street-corner world of cops and hoods. I had been an assistant DA for most of the 1990s, and crime fascinated me. I felt that, as a writer, I had found my subject. But by the time I began to imagine Defending Jacob, I was thinking of crime in a different way—and thinking of crime novels in a different way too. By then, I had left the DA’s ofﬁce to become a full-time writer, and I had started my own family. Crime had been an everyday reality when I was a courtroom prosecutor; now it was just a memory, an abstract idea, the stuff I made stories out of. As I thought about crime now, from the perspective of a writer and a young father, it seemed to me that the questions that haunt us as parents were not so different from the questions that animate criminal law: Why do people do what they do? How do we encourage good behavior and punish bad? How do we understand one another? How, for example, do we respond to the fact that good people do bad things, or that good people are victimized? Above all, what does crime tell us about ourselves? That last question, of course, is the reason crime has always fascinated storytellers and audiences: we read (and watch) crime stories not for what they tell us about criminals, but for what they tell us about ourselves. The criminal we read about is us—at least, he is a little, wicked part of us, all of us.
RHRC: How do you feel about the concept of the “murder gene”?
WL: I think it is fashionable now to use DNA as an explanation for all sorts of behaviors. Genomics is a new and fast-developing—and seductive—science, and we tend to think of it in an overly determinative way, as if it explains everything about us. But we humans are unfathomably complex. None of us is simply our DNA. So I think we have to be careful when we encounter a new idea and a new science like behavioral genetics. We have to be careful about terms like “murder gene” and “warrior gene,” lest we think of these things, inaccurately, as simple triggers. The truth is, we are still talking about a gene-environment interaction, still talking
“Ingenious . . . Nothing is predictable. All bets are off.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“A legal thriller that’s comparable to classics such as Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent . . . Tragic and shocking, Defending Jacob is sure to generate buzz.”—Associated Press
“Stunning . . . a novel that comes to you out of the blue and manages to keep you reading feverishly until the whole thing is completed.”—The Huffington Post
“Gripping . . . [Landay] keeps you turning the pages through the shocking gut-punch of an ending.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Gripping, emotional murder saga . . . The shocking ending will have readers pulling up their bedcovers to ward off the haunting chill.”—People
“The hype is justified. . . . Exceptionally serious, suspenseful, engrossing.”—The Washington Post
“Not since Scott Turow has a crime thriller—any thriller, though this too happens to be a literary legal thriller—shaken me by the throat like this. It’s a stunning, shocking, emotionally harrowing ride in which the reader is plunged into a riveting but terrible murder trial and the equally heartbreaking implosion of a loving family.”—Daily Mail
“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.”—The Boston Globe
“[William] Landay does the seemingly impossible by coming up with a new wrinkle in the crowded subgenre of courtroom thrillers. . . . It’s inevitable that he’ll be compared to Scott Turow, but this novel succeeds on its own merits.”—Kirkus Reviews