Law and Disorder: an interview with William Landay, author of ‘Defending Jacob’

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If you think you know the formula for legal thrillers, think again. Former District Attorney William Landay (author of The Strangler and Mission Flats) has turned to familiar territory for his latest crime thriller, Defending Jacob – but this isn’t just another legal procedural story. Not only has Landay drawn upon his own real-life experiences in telling his tale, but he’s also ripped up the Law & Order rulebook.

Defending Jacob is the story of Andy Barber, a respected First Assistant DA in New England whose career and family are both shattered when his son is implicated in the murder of one of his schoolmates. As the case develops, the Barbers stand to lose everything they’ve worked for – and Jacob’s innocence is by no means guaranteed. When it emerges that Andy himself has a checkered past things start to look very bleak indeed.

William Landay is currently on tour with Defending Jacob, and will be coming to the West Coast this February. His tour includes two stops in Seattle on February 8: at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop at 12 noon, and Third Place Books at 7:00pm. Check with the venues for further details.

We caught up with William Landay as he embarked on his book tour, to ask him a few questions about his inspirations, the future of the legal thriller, and his own experiences in the courtroom.

Dan Coxon: I understand that you have courtroom experience yourself… how closely do the court scenes in the book reflect your own experience? How did it feed into your writing?

William Landay: I was an assistant D.A. in the Boston area for most of the 1990s and I tried a lot of cases. That experience certainly informs the courtroom scenes in Defending Jacob, which are about as accurate as I could make them without compromising the story. Obviously, story comes first. I read a quote once from John le Carré, who said of the tradecraft in his novels that “it is better to be credible than authentic.” What he meant was that a storyteller can’t feel bound by the facts of his professional world. Sometimes it is necessary to invent, to improve upon the truth, in order to tell a good story.

With that said, it seems to me that courtroom stories could do with a little less invention lately. As a lawyer the sort of over-the-top courtroom melodrama you so often see in crime stories — the showy lawyers, the witness who breaks down and confesses to the crime — always seem ridiculous to me. I was determined that Defending Jacob would have a more realistic feel. The fact is, criminal trials are pretty dramatic just as they are. They are rich in conflict and confrontation, and they build to the natural climax of a verdict. It simply isn’t necessary to embroider too much.

DC: Defending Jacob uses many of the standard devices of the legal thriller, but it also stretches beyond the confines of the genre, especially in the ending. Was that always your intention, or did it grow out of the story itself?

WL: Well, I knew from the start that a simple, traditional courtroom drama was not going to work. At this point, so late in the life of the genre — with Law & Order and so many other TV shows in constant rotation, in addition to the many novels in this area — audiences have seen courtroom stories a thousand times. They know every trick. They are awfully hard to surprise. So it was necessary to expand the story beyond the courtroom in order to give readers something truly new and unexpected. In fact, one of the reasons Defending Jacob gives readers such a jolt is that it undercuts their expectations of how courtroom stories work. They assume they know what’s coming. They’ve been trained to expect these cliches. In this case, happily, they’re wrong.

DC: I suspect that the ending may divide readers … without giving away too much here, can you explain your intentions for the ending? What kind of reaction do you expect it to get?

The premise of the book — ordinary parents confronted with the possibility that their teenage son may have committed murder — is a direct challenge to every parent’s most basic assumption: I would do anything for my child, I would never leave my child, I will always defend him. But surely there is a limit. Surely some things are indefensible. At some point, if the child were bad or dangerous enough, it would be wrong for a parent to go on defending him. Some parents — a tragic few, but some — are morally required to leave their child to his fate. It is a horrible thing for parents to think about, but then novels live in the extremes.

The ending of the book follows from that premise. Jacob’s parents are forced to decide: what would you choose? How far would you go? I can’t say much more about it without giving too much away, so let’s leave it at this: I think everyone will respond differently to the ending, but no one will be indifferent. The ending forces you to feel the horror of this family’s situation. It makes you ache for them. That’s what good novels do — good drama of any kind, for that matter. They move you beyond simply thinking about an issue; they make you feel it.

DC: Much of the novel rests upon familial ties, and particularly the bonds between father and child. Do you have children yourself? What made you choose this as the theme for the book?

William Landay. Photo: John Earle.

WL: I do have children, two little boys aged 8 and 10. (Neither of them gives any indication of homicidal tendencies, I’m happy to report. Jacob Barber, the boy in my novel, is entirely fictional.) As you might expect, becoming a father had a lot to do with the genesis of this book. I wanted to explore these ordinary family relationships, and as a crime novelist, this sort of story seemed the perfect vehicle to do it.

I think that is another source of the novel’s power, actually. It grows out of my own very ordinary love for my very ordinary kids. I did not want to tell a story about a monster. Jacob is not Hannibal Lecter. His family is not especially dysfunctional. He is not some rampaging psycho. He is a recognizable, ordinary kid. The possibility that even a seemingly good kid might be capable of killing — that no kid is either all good or all bad — is a chilling one for parents.

DC: The crime genre, and particularly the police/courtroom procedural story, has become a mainstay of popular television. How do you think TV has influenced your writing, if at all? Where do you think the future of the genre lies?

WL: The deluge of crime shows, particularly the issue-of-the-week format of Law & Order and the forensic-science-obsessed CSI series, obviously is a real challenge to novelists who fish those same waters. It’s simply a crowded field, and TV and movies, alas, command much bigger audiences than books do. So issue-of-the-week crime novels and forensic-science crime novels will feel a little “meh” — been there, done that.

On the other hand, those same shows, because they are so obsessed with technicalities and procedure, and are so little concerned with human nature or real human emotion, actually highlight what crime novels can do when they dig deeper. We have been telling crime stories for thousands of years because they resonate, even with us non-criminals. They tell us something about ourselves. But only if we can see ourselves in them somehow. That doesn’t mean every story has to involve “ordinary people”; readers are perfectly capable of empathizing with a thug, if he’s drawn right. But it does mean engaging with deeper feeling and deeper thought than the usual 48-minute cop show.

DC: Given that your novels seem to come out at intervals of around four years, it may be too early to ask… but what can we expect to see from you next?

WL: I always hesitate to answer this question. It is a bad idea to talk about novels in progress. But I can tell you that the next book is sort of a bookend to Defending Jacob. It is about another ordinary family, another murder of a child. But this time the story is not about who dunnit. It’s about the victim’s family and what happens next, what happens after. What do we want the criminal justice system to give us when “justice” is an impossibility? That is a dilemma that always rankled me when I was a DA. What so many victims want after a crime is “justice” — for things somehow to be put right, for the wound to be healed. It simply can’t be done. No court can give back what a murderer has taken away.

Defending Jacob by William Landay is available now from all good bookstores, and the Random House website, priced $26.00.