NOW AN EMMY-NOMINATED ORIGINAL STREAMING SERIES • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Entertainment Weekly • Boston Globe • Kansas City Star
Andy Barber has been an assistant district attorney for two decades. He is respected. Admired in the courtroom. Happy at home with the loves of his life: his wife, Laurie, and their teenage son, Jacob. Then Andy’s quiet suburb is stunned by a shocking crime: a young boy stabbed to death in a leafy park. And an even greater shock: The accused is Andy’s own son—shy, awkward, mysterious Jacob.
Andy believes in Jacob’s innocence. Any parent would. But the pressure mounts. Damning evidence. Doubt. A faltering marriage. The neighbors’ contempt. A murder trial that threatens to obliterate Andy’s family. It is the ultimate test for any parent: How far would you go to protect your child? It is a test of devotion. A test of how well a parent can know a child. For Andy Barber, a man with an iron will and a dark secret, it is a test of guilt and innocence in the deepest sense.
How far would you go?
Praise for Defending Jacob
“A novel like this comes along maybe once a decade . . . a tour de force, a full-blooded legal thriller about a murder trial and the way it shatters a family. With its relentless suspense, its mesmerizing prose, and a shocking twist at the end, it’s every bit as good as Scott Turow’s great Presumed Innocent. But it’s also something more: an indelible domestic drama that calls to mind Ordinary People and We Need to Talk About Kevin. A spellbinding and unforgettable literary crime novel.”—Joseph Finder
“Defending Jacob is smart, sophisticated, and suspenseful—capturing both the complexity and stunning fragility of family life.”—Lee Child
“Powerful . . . leaves you gasping breathlessly at each shocking revelation.”—Lisa Gardner
“Disturbing, complex, and gripping, Defending Jacob is impossible to put down. William Landay is a stunning talent.”—Carla Neggers
“Riveting, suspenseful, and emotionally searing.”—Linwood Barclay
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
In the Grand Jury
Mr. Logiudice: State your name, please.
Witness: Andrew Barber.
Mr. Logiudice: What do you do for work, Mr. Barber?
Witness: I was an assistant district attorney in this county for 22 years.
Mr. Logiudice: "Was." What do you do for work now?
Witness: I suppose you'd say I'm unemployed.
In April 2008, Neal Logiudice finally subpoenaed me to appear before the grand jury. By then it was too late. Too late for his case, certainly, but also too late for Logiudice. His reputation was already damaged beyond repair, and his career along with it. A prosecutor can limp along with a damaged reputation for a while, but his colleagues will watch him like wolves and eventually he will be forced out, for the good of the pack. I have seen it many times: an ADA is irreplaceable one day, forgotten the next.
I have always had a soft spot for Neal Logiudice (pronounced la-JOO-dis). He came to the DA's office a dozen years before this, right out of law school. He was twenty-nine then, short, with thinning hair and a little potbelly. His mouth was overstuffed with teeth; he had to force it shut, like a full suitcase, which left him with a sour, pucker-mouthed expression. I used to get after him not to make this face in front of juries-nobody likes a scold-but he did it unconsciously. He would get up in front of the jury box shaking his head and pursing his lips like a schoolmarm or a priest, and in every juror there stirred a secret desire to vote against him. Inside the office, Logiudice was a bit of an operator and a kiss-ass. He got a lot of teasing. Other ADAs tooled on him endlessly, but he got it from everyone, even people who worked with the office at arm's length-cops, clerks, secretaries, people who did not usually make their contempt for a prosecutor quite so obvious. They called him Milhouse, after a dweeby character on The Simpsons, and they came up with a thousand variations on his name: LoFoolish, LoDoofus, Sid Vicious, Judicious, on and on. But to me, Logiudice was okay. He was just innocent. With the best intentions, he smashed people's lives and never lost a minute of sleep over it. He only went after bad guys, after all. That is the Prosecutor's Fallacy-They are bad guys because I am prosecuting them-and Logiudice was not the first to be fooled by it, so I forgave him for being righteous. I even liked him. I rooted for him precisely because of his oddities, the unpronounceable name, the snaggled teeth-which any of his peers would have had straightened with expensive braces, paid for by Mummy and Daddy-even his naked ambition. I saw something in the guy. An air of sturdiness in the way he bore up under so much rejection, how he just took it and took it. He was obviously a working-class kid determined to get for himself what so many others had simply been handed. In that way, and only in that way, I suppose, he was just like me.
Now, a dozen years after he arrived in the office, despite all his quirks, he had made it, or nearly made it. Neal Logiudice was First Assistant, the number two man in the Middlesex District Attorney's Office, the DA's right hand and chief trial attorney. He took over the job from me-this kid who once said to me, "Andy, you're exactly what I want to be someday." I should have seen it coming. In the grand jury room that morning, the jurors were in a sullen, defeated mood. They sat, thirty-odd men and women who had not been clever enough to find a way out of serving, all crammed into those school chairs with teardrop-shaped desks for chair arms. They understood their jobs well enough by now. Grand juries serve for months, and they figure out pretty quickly what the gig is all about: accuse, point your finger, name the wicked one.
A grand jury proceeding is not a trial. There is no judge in the room and no defense lawyer. The prosecutor runs the show. It is an investigation and in theory a check on the prosecutor's power, since the grand jury decides whether the prosecutor has enough evidence to haul a suspect into court for trial. If there is enough evidence, the grand jury grants the prosecutor an indictment, his ticket to Superior Court. If not, they return a "no bill" and the case is over before it begins. In practice, no bills are rare. Most grand juries indict. Why not? They only see one side of the case.
But in this case, I suspect the jurors knew Logiudice did not have a case. Not today. The truth was not going to be found, not with evidence this stale and tainted, not after everything that had happened. It had been over a year already-over twelve months since the body of a fourteen-year-old boy was found in the woods with three stab wounds arranged in a line across the chest as if he'd been forked with a trident. But it was not the time, so much. It was everything else. Too late, and the grand jury knew it.
I knew it too.
Only Logiudice was undeterred. He pursed his lips in that odd way of his. He reviewed his notes on a yellow legal pad, considered his next question. He was doing just what I'd taught him. The voice in his head was mine: Never mind how weak your case is. Stick to the system. Play the game the same way it's been played the last five-hundred-odd years, use the same gutter tactic that has always governed cross-examination-lure, trap, fuck.
He said, "Do you recall when you first heard about the Rifkin boy's murder?"
"I got a call, I think, first from CPAC-that's thes tate police. Then two more came in right away, one from the Newton police, one from the duty DA. I may have the order wrong, but basically the phone started ringing off the hook."
"When was this?"
"Thursday, April 12, 2007, around nine A.M., right after the body was discovered."
"Why were you called?"
"I was the First Assistant. I was notified of every murder in the county. It was standard procedure."
"But you did not keep every case, did you? You did not personally investigate and try every homicide that came in?"
"No, of course not. I didn't have that kind of time. I kept very few homicides. Most I assigned to other ADAs."
"But this one you kept."
"Did you decide immediately that you were going to keep it for yourself, or did you only decide that later?"
"I decided almost immediately."
"Why? Why did you want this case in particular?"
"I had an understanding with the district attorney, Lynn Canavan: certain cases I would try personally."
"What sort of cases?"
"I was the senior trial lawyer in the office. She wanted to be sure that important cases were handled properly."
"Who decided if a case was high priority?"
"Me, in the first instance. In consultation with the district attorney, of course, but things tend to move pretty fast at the beginning. There isn't usually time for a meeting."
"So you decided the Rifkin murder was a high-priority case?"
"Because it involved the murder of a child. I think we also had an idea it might blow up, catch the media's attention. It was that kind of case. It happened in a wealthy town, with a wealthy victim. We'd already had a few cases like that. At the beginning we did not know exactly what it was, either. In some ways it looked like a schoolhouse killing, a Columbine thing. Basically, we didn't know what the hell it was, but it smelled like a big case. If it had turned out to be a smaller thing, I would have passed it off later, but in those first few hours I had to be sure everything was done right."
"Did you inform the district attorney that you had a conflict of interest?"
"Because I didn't have one."
"Wasn't your son, Jacob, a classmate of the dead boy?"
"Yes, but I didn't know the victim. Jacob didn't know him either, as far as I was aware. I'd never even heard the dead boy's name."
"You did not know the kid. All right. But you did know that he and your son were in the same grade at the same middle school in the same town?"
"And you still didn't think you were conflicted out? You didn't think your objectivity might be called into question?"
"No. Of course not."
"Even in hindsight? You insist, you- Even in hindsight, you still don't feel the circumstances gave even the appearance of a conflict?"
"No, there was nothing improper about it. There was nothing even unusual about it. The fact that I lived in the town where the murder happened? That was a good thing. In smaller counties, the prosecutor often lives in the community where a crime happens, he often knows the people affected by it. So what? So he wants to catch the murderer even more? That's not a conflict of interest. Look, the bottom line is, I have a conflict with all murderers. That's my job. This was a horrible, horrible crime; it was my job to do something about it. I was determined to do just that."
"Okay." Logiudice lowered his eyes to his pad. No sense attacking the witness so early in his testimony. He would come back to this point later in the day, no doubt, when I was tired. For now, best to keep the temperature down.
"You understand your Fifth Amendment rights?"
"And you have waived them?"
"Apparently. I'm here. I'm talking."
Titters from the grand jury.
Logiudice laid down his pad, and with it he seemed to set aside his game plan for a moment. "Mr. Barber-Andy-could I just ask you something: why not invoke them? Why not remain silent?" The next sentence he left unsaid: That's what I would do.
I thought for a moment that this was a tactic, a bit of play acting. But Logiudice seemed to mean it. He was worried I was up to something. He did not want to be tricked, to look like a fool.
I said, "I have no desire to remain silent. I want the truth to come out."
"No matter what?"
"I believe in the system, same as you, same as everyone here."
Now, this was not exactly true. I do not believe in the court system, at least I do not think it is especially good at finding the truth. No lawyer does. We have all seen too many mistakes, too many bad results. A jury verdict is just a guess-a well-intentioned guess, generally, but you simply cannot tell fact from fiction by taking a vote. And yet, despite all that, I do believe in the power of the ritual. I believe in the religious symbolism, the black robes, the marble-columned courthouses like Greek temples. When we hold a trial, we are saying a mass. We are praying together to do what is right and to be protected from danger, and that is worth doing whether or not our prayers are actually heard.
Of course, Logiudice did not go in for that sort of solemn bullshit. He lived in the lawyer's binary world, guilty or not guilty, and he was determined to keep me pinned there.
"You believe in the system, do you?" he sniffed. "All right, Andy, let's get back to it, then. We'll let the system do its work." He gave the jury a knowing, smart-ass look.
Attaboy, Neal. Don't let the witness jump into bed with the jury-you jump into bed with the jury. Jump in there and snuggle right up beside them under the blanket and leave the witness out in the cold. I smirked. I would have stood up and applauded if I'd been allowed to, because I taught him to do precisely this. Why deny myself a little fatherly pride? I must not have been all bad-I turned Neal Logiudice into a half-decent lawyer, after all.
"So go on already," I said, nuzzling the jury's neck. "Stop screwing around and get on with it, Neal."
He gave me a look, then picked up his yellow pad again and scanned it, looking for his place. I could practically read the thought spelled out across his forehead: Lure, trap, fuck. "Okay," he said, "let's pick it up at the aftermath of the murder."
April 2007: twelve months earlier.
When the Rifkins opened their home for the shiva, the Jewish period of mourning, it seemed the whole town came. The family would not be allowed to mourn in private. The boy's murder was a public event; the grieving would be as well. The house was so full that when the murmur of conversation occasionally swelled, the whole thing began to feel awkwardly like a party, until the crowd lowered its voice as one, as if an invisible volume knob were being turned.
I made apologetic faces as I moved through this crowd, repeating "Excuse me," turning this way and that to shuffle by.
People stared with curious expressions. Someone said, "That's him, that's Andy Barber," but I did not stop. We were four days past the murder now, and everyone knew I was handling the case. They wanted to ask about it, naturally, about suspects and clues and all that, but they did not dare. For the moment, the details of the investigation did not matter, only the raw fact that an innocent kid was dead.
Murdered! The news sucker-punched them. Newton had no crime to speak of. What the locals knew about violence necessarily came from news reports and TV shows. They had supposed that violent crime was limited to the city, to an underclass of urban hillbillies. They were wrong about that, of course, but they were not fools and they would not have been so shocked by the murder of an adult. What made the Rifkin murder so profane was that it involved one of the town's children. It was a violation of Newton's self-image. For awhile a sign had stood in Newton Centre declaring the place "A Community of Families, A Family of Communities," and you often heard it repeated that Newton was "a good place to raise kids." Which indeed it was. It brimmed with test-prep centers and after-school tutors, karate dojos and Saturday soccer leagues. The town's young parents especially prized this idea of Newton as a child's paradise. Many of them had left the hip, sophisticated city to move here. They had accepted massive expenses, stultifying monotony, and the queasy disappointment of settling for a conventional life. To these ambivalent residents, the whole suburban project made sense only because it was "a good place to raise kids." They had staked everything on it.
What People are Saying About This
“The hype is justified. . . . Exceptionally serious, suspenseful, engrossing.”—The Washington Post
“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
“Ingenious . . . Nothing is predictable. All bets are off.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Unexpected twists . . . This novel has major motion picture written all over it.”—The Boston Globe
“Gripping . . . [Landay] keeps you turning the pages through the shocking gut-punch of an ending.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Landay has proven himself to be an extraordinary writer, and Defending Jacob is AN AMAZING NOVEL. Do yourself a favor and read it. It’s that good.”—Nicholas Sparks
“Defending Jacob is SMART, SOPHISTICATED, AND SUSPENSEFUL—capturing both the complexity and stunning fragility of family life.”—Lee Child
“A powerful portrayal of a family, a crime, and a community, Defending Jacob compels you to flip frantically through the pages, desperate to know what will happen next, then leaves you gasping breathlessly at each shocking revelation. This is a PAGE-TURNER WITH BITE . . . and that’s before you get to the end.”—Lisa Gardner
“GRIPPING . . . The shocking ending will have readers pulling up their bedcovers to ward off the haunting chill.”—People
“A novel like this comes along maybe once a decade. William Landay’s Defending Jacob is A TOUR DE FORCE, a full-blooded legal thriller about a murder trial and the way it shatters a family.”—Joseph Finder
“HARROWING . . . This searing narrative proves the ancient Greek tragedians were right: The worst punishment is not death but living with what you—knowingly or unknowingly—have done.”—Publishers Weekly
Reading Group Guide
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 about nature versus nurture, as we always have. The difference is that now we have a window into the “nature” side of the equation.
In some ways, the effect of our physical construction—the chemicals and electrical impulses, the bones and meat we are made of—on our behavior and character is a revolutionary idea, a completely new way to think about ourselves. But in other ways, it is merely a very old idea that has simply been detailed a bit by science. We have always understood that we all have certain innate, “hardwired” tendencies and temperaments; now we understand the precise mecha- nisms of that physical hard wiring a little better. The interesting question for readers and novelists is what this new science means.
How should we think about ourselves in light of these new discoveries? What should society do with the knowledge that some of our neighbors bear genes predisposing them to violence or disease or a thousand other human traits? These are rich topics for novelists.
RHRC: Which character in Defending Jacob do you identify with most strongly? Who is your least favorite character?
WL: The truth is that all the main characters are fragments of myself. We are all many things in the course of our lives, and at various times I have been sullen and withdrawn like Jacob, warm and sensi- tive like Laurie, steely and loyal like Andy. When you write a novel, at least a novel as deeply felt as Defending Jacob was to me, you ﬁnd yourself excavating all these various aspects of your own personality. On the other hand, I do not believe the simplistic assumption that all characters in all novels are reﬂections of the novelist. I have created many characters that have felt external to me—real and credible characters, I hope, but not reﬂections of me at all, not family. The Barbers were the ﬁrst kind, the sort of characters that are slivers of me. So I ﬁnd it hard to see them with any objectivity or distance, let alone to choose a favorite. Maybe I will, in time.
With that said, I confess I have a soft spot for Andy, for his stead- fast devotion to his child even in the darkest times. Andy is not perfect, of course. But to me, even his ﬂaws do him credit. Who would not want a father so unshakable, who would stand by you, right or wrong, right to the end?
RHRC: Do you see any of yourself in Andy?
WL: A little bit, yes. I am stubborn and doggedly loyal, as Andy is. And my emotions can cloud my perceptions, though I think everyone is vulnerable to that.
But I can’t quite see myself in Andy because I see so many others in him too. When I was a young lawyer, there were several older, respected prosecutors like Andy Barber who were role models for the younger lawyers coming up. At least they ought to have been. Andy is an amalgam of those older lawyers whom I admired as a young man. He is the prosecutor I might have become if I’d stuck with it for an entire career. I like to think so, at least.
RHRC: What has been the most surprising aspect of the huge reader response to Defending Jacob?
WL: Well, to borrow your word, the sheer hugeness of it. I am still stunned. No writer would dare imagine that sort of commercial success. No sane writer, anyway. The odds are so long. So many things have to go right, including a good deal of luck. It is humbling.
I have also been amazed at the intensity of readers’ reactions. Even now, more than a year after the book was published, I get email every day from readers who tell me how deeply moved they were by Defending Jacob. Most write to tell me how much they enjoyed the book. A few write because they are outraged at Laurie’s or Andy’s behavior—which is to say, they are outraged at me for making them misbehave this way. But for good and bad, the emails keep pouring in, often beginning with “I have never written to an author before, but I just had to tell you . . .”
It has been a wonderful, bewildering experience to see my book hit a nerve that way. Writing is a lonely business. A writer’s days are ﬁlled with silence and solitude (if he’s doing it right). Inside that bubble, while writing, it is easy to believe that the book is a purely private experience, written only for the writer himself. It sounds silly, but you can forget that other people will actually read your story, let alone that they might be deeply touched by it. Books are essentially a private medium, for both the artist and audience— imagined by a writer in a lonely room, then reimagined by a reader in the quiet of her own thoughts. The public life of books—the brief moment when they show up in book reviews (for those lucky enough to be reviewed), bookstores (increasingly rare), or advertisements (rarer still)—has more to do with bookselling than reading. A book’s essential purpose is to be opened by a single reader and read in silence, to slip into her thoughts quietly. So it has been shocking— I don’t know what else to call it—to see my book become such a public hit. I am very, very grateful for it, for all the readers who have enjoyed the book and written to let me know. I would like to thank every last one of them, if I could.
RHRC: What are the one or two things readers have said to you about Defending Jacob that you treasure most?
WL: The other day, I heard from a woman whose teenage son was convicted of murder. The boy served eight and a half years in prison, then took his own life. This grieving mother wrote to tell me that Defending Jacob had actually helped her to process what she had been through, that the book captured her own feelings and experiences accurately (“spot-on” was the phrase she used), and that she wanted to thank me for writing it. As a parent, it is staggering to imagine that sort of pain. As a novelist, it is humbling even to imagine that your book might help someone that way.
Of course, that sort of dramatic email is rare. More often, I hear from readers with the ordinary, everyday worries of parents: children who communicate too little, stare into their smartphones too much, and wander into all sorts of trouble. Defending Jacob seems to speak to them too. Jacob Barber is not so different from a lot of teenagers, really. And Laurie and Andy’s worry about Jacob and even their fear of him are emotions every parent will recognize, if only in a small way.
RHRC: Both Andy and Laurie Barber are strong presences in this novel. What do you ﬁnd are the difﬁculties in tackling male and female characters? Is one more difﬁcult than the other?
WL: The expected answer, I suppose, is that male authors must ﬁnd women more difﬁcult to write, and female authors must struggle to create men. It is a logical assumption: the closer one’s own experience is to any subject, the less guesswork must be required. But I am not sure it actually works that way. Personally—and I don’t pretend to speak for other writers—I don’t ﬁnd my female characters any more mysterious or elusive than my male characters, at least not as a rule. There are difﬁcult people to create, certainly, but I don’t think the difﬁculty correlates to gender.
That must sound odd from a writer who has just written a novel in the voice of a man very like himself. And it is true that I have written more male characters than female. But that has mostly been a result of the topics I have chosen. I have written mostly about the worlds of cops and criminals, and these are dominated by men, still. But I would love to center a novel on a woman—a novel not just with a female protagonist, but actually told from a woman’s point of view, with her sensibility and her voice. Maybe that is foolish, maybe I will ﬁnd it more difﬁcult than I expected to write credibly from a woman’s perspective at novel length. But I think one of the worst bits of advice writers hear is “write what you know.” If writers did not feel free to break that rule and imagine worlds beyond their personal experience, we would not have so many of our favorite stories and characters, from Harry Potter to Humbert Humbert. Anyway, if I wanted to do things the easy way, I probably would not have become a writer in the ﬁrst place.
RHRC: One of the powerful emotional arcs in this book is the evolution of Laurie and Andy’s marriage/relationship. Was this very complicated and intense relationship difﬁcult to write?
WL: It was difﬁcult in the sense that it was painful to watch these characters suffer so. I like Andy and Laurie. They are my friends, or would be but for the fact they are ﬁctional. I like them as a couple too, how they complement each other, how they ﬁt together. And the fact that their lives—Andy’s work, the town they live in, the stage of life they are in—are so similar to mine made their descent especially uncomfortable to watch. This story hits literally close to home.
But the Barbers’ unraveling was not difﬁcult to create in the sense that it was complex or technically challenging. Writing is an em- pathic, instinctive thing, at least when you are in the heat of it, building your story sentence by sentence. You don’t stop to calculate which emotion logically ﬁts in a given situation; you just feel it, you react in real time, and you hope your instincts are right. (And if you get it wrong, the ﬁx is easy enough: throw it away and write it again. And again, and again.) So, was it hard to trace the emotional arc of Andy and Laurie’s relationship? Yes, but hard like heartbreak, not hard like math.
RHRC: How do you want your readers to feel about Laurie?
WL: I would never prescribe how readers ought to feel about any- thing. That’s their business. But I do think Laurie’s warmth, her emotional honesty, is something Andy treasures and sorely misses when the couple is forced apart by Jacob’s case. No doubt it was part of what attracted him to her in the ﬁrst place. Andy’s personality is built on a secret; Laurie seems to have none. At least, she seems to believe that keeping secrets like Andy’s is unhealthy. Whether Andy really had a choice about divulging his past, whether it is Andy’s secrecy that comes back to haunt the family, whether it would have made a difference if Laurie’s honesty had ruled the household— all that I leave to the reader.
RHRC: If you had investigated the case, would you have focused on Jacob, or would you have gone after Patz?
WL: I would certainly have looked into Patz. There is enough smoke there that any good investigator would have to check it out. One thing that Andy comments on, which was always my experience too, is that in the early stages of an investigation it is very hard to differentiate signal from noise—to tell which odd-seeming facts are signiﬁcant evidence and which are just odd, irrelevant distractions. Once the investigation ﬁxes on Jacob, it becomes very hard for the detectives to see Patz as anything but a distraction. But that has as much to do with their own perceptional bias, their “target focus,” as it has to do with the real weight of the evidence. When the bal- ance tips—when the weight of evidence truly points to Jacob, if it ever does—that is up to the reader.
RHRC: If you weren’t a writer, what profession would you choose? Would you practice law again?
WL: Oh, I could go on and on. There are so many things I would truly love to do. I doubt I would go back to practicing law. I am too conﬂictaverse and at this point I am too interested in creating things. I would love to do something in the visual arts, in design, photography, even ﬁlmmaking. One of the frustrations of novel-writing is that it is entirely a verbal medium. As grand and elastic a form as the novel is, it really offers nothing to the visual imagination, to the eye. And nothing tangible, as the advent of eBooks makes painfully clear. Yes, a printed book is a tangible object, but it is not entirely the author’s own. It is co-produced by the publisher. Only the words are mine. I love technology too; maybe I would throw myself into the Next Big Thing on the internet. I would love to start a business. Maybe get into the shoe business, which is what my family has done for several generations and which I always imagined I would go into when I was a kid.
Or teach. I have always wanted to teach English in a middle school somewhere, though I suspect I’d be a lousy teacher (too impatient). The truth is I would need several lifetimes to get through all the careers I dream about, but I will never try any of them because I al- ready have the one job that trumps them all: writer. What a remarkable, privileged thing to be. If I never dreamed of becoming a writer as a kid, it is only because it would have seemed so preposterous— like saying you were going to become an astronaut or a major-league ballplayer. There were no artists or writers in my world back then. Even now, I feel a little fraudulent using that word to describe myself; I think of myself as just a guy who has written a few books, not a writer. So I consider myself damn lucky to have this job, and I intend to keep it. It is only a handful of writers who get to earn their living this way. Not a day goes by that I don’t remember that.
RHRC: Does plot come ﬁrst for you, or character?
WL: They come at the same time. I’m not sure I could even separate the two as neatly as the question implies. Plot is just character in action. Character, in the end, is what you actually do. In my books I design both plot and character to achieve whatever effect I’m after, to suit whatever subject I’m trying to discuss. One of the pitfalls of dividing our books into genre novels versus “literary” novels is that we have come to expect too little character out of the ﬁrst and too little plot out of the second, leaving both poorer. A good novel needs both, of course, and the two should be wrapped as tight as the strands in a rope.
RHRC: If you had to write Defending Jacob again, would you change any of the major plot points?
WL: I never, ever think that way. For me, when a book is done, it’s done, and I move on. I have heard stories about famous authors who would take their own published books down off the shelf and obsessively rewrite them over and over. I have never felt that urge. In my experience, as soon as I ﬁnish a manuscript, a happy amnesia settles over me. I can barely recall the details of the book, never mind feel tempted to rewrite it. The question of “wrong” creative choices, it seems to me, misperceives how stories are made. As a reader, the incidents in a book feel inevitable. There is a chain of events: A leads to B leads to C. The reader reacts to that chain in a binary way: either she approves or not. But to the writer, who faces a blank page (or computer screen) every day, every plot decision involves inﬁnite possibilities. A might lead to B, but it also might lead to a thousand other things. The writer chooses because he has to choose. The story must proceed. But he is never under the illusion that there is a correct or best choice. Every decision is contingent. Every choice involves compro- mises, tradeoffs, ﬂaws. So he makes his bargain and he moves on.
In the case of Defending Jacob, the ending has received a lot of attention, understandably. But the novel might have ended a differ- ent way—or ten different ways. In fact, the published novel does not end the way my original manuscript did. Is the ﬁnal version better, is it the “right” ending? There is no way to answer that question. My advice to writers: don’t look back. As Satchel Paige said, “Something may be gaining on you.”
RHRC: Which authors do you admire and why?
WL: This is a common question and one I hate because my reading is so random. I tend to read whatever catches my interest at the moment, from the current ﬁction lists or the classics. I have loved books by a crazily varied list of authors: Austen and Dickens, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Larry McMurtry and E. L. Doctorow (particularly Billy Bathgate), Bellow and Roth and Updike, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes, Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon. On and on.
I do ﬁnd it difﬁcult to read when I’m writing, however. The part of a reader’s imagination that a good novel occupies is the very same space that a novelist uses to dream up his own original stories. So I often fall back on nonﬁction when I am writing, lest I start stealing from someone else or, worse, being led astray by my betters, writing their stories rather than my own.
RHRC: If you had to cite just one novel aspiring writers should read before starting to write their own work, what would it be?
WL: I think the answer would be different for everyone. The books that inspired me to write likely would not have the same effect on others. That is the nature of reading. Those magical, electric reading experiences—the unforgettable books that are seared into us and mark us for life—depend on so many things besides the book itself. It happens when the right reader opens the right book at just the right moment in her life. It is like dating. All of us who are devoted readers have had the experience of meeting the same book twice and feeling completely different about it. At eighteen, I hated Moby Dick; at thirty, I was blown away by it. So it goes.
I am also a very slow reader, so I haven’t racked up the mile-long reading lists that other writers have. Worse, I tend to reread my fa- vorites, especially as I get older. I ﬁnd I enjoy the company of old friends like The Great Gatsby more than the sexy new titles at the front of the bookstore. And of course I read with a professional’s eye now. I try to take apart every book to see how it works, how it was built, to see what I can take from it.
So I would not presume to tell any aspiring writer what she ought to read. Personally, I have loved Fitzgerald and Hemingway, those polestars of the tender and tough schools of romantic writing. Roth and Bellow too. I always have Ian McEwan nearby; when I am stuck in my own writing, I often read McEwan just to hear the sound of good English prose and get myself moving again. Works every time. I have enjoyed the richer sort of genre stuff like Scott Turow and John le Carré (especially A Perfect Spy), and I’ve enjoyed Stephen King and Elmore Leonard too. I have enjoyed a lot of “good bad books,” as George Orwell called them, pop novels like The Godfather. And I have made sure to work in a few classics, especially Dickens. I read screenplays, as well, to learn about dialogue and how to structure a plot. So that is my haphazard list. At least, it is the bits that come immediately to mind. The main thing for any aspiring author is: read. Just read. Read anything at all that excites you. Don’t worry about how sophisticated or impressive your list sounds. Don’t worry what people will think. If you like junk, read junk. Find a book that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, then pull that book apart scene by scene and ﬁgure out how the author did it. Then go do it your- self.
A Conversation with William Landay
Interview by Tess Taylor
Andy Barber, the narrator and protagonist in your book, is a guy who went to Yale and to work in a DA's office. You also attended Yale before becoming a DA. Any veiled autobiography here?
Well, certainly I drew on aspects of my own life as I was creating Andy, but there's no "autobiography." I never thought of Andy as a stand-in for myself, even when writing in his voice in first person when I was pretending to be him. Actually, Andy began as an amalgam of several respected, soft-spoken, older trial lawyers whom I met during my years as an assistant D.A. But a funny thing happens as you write: you begin with a real-life model for a character, but you change him a little, then a little more, and at some point the model falls away and the character emerges as his own person. It's a mysterious fission. In the end, Andy did not resemble any of the lawyers I had in mind when I started.
But Andy is my creation and inevitably aspects of him reflect me, probably in ways more intimate than just biography. For all his fluency in the courtroom, he's essentially an introvert, as I am. He is doggedly loyal, especially in his determination not to abandon his son. Does that make him a good father or a good person? I don't know. Readers will have to decide for themselves. But I like him for it. Wouldn't we all like to think our dads (or spouses or friends) would stand by us, no matter what?
Jacob Barber, the accused murderer in your book, is a teenager, an 8th grader who is being tried as an adult. Are 8th graders currently tried this way in Massachusetts? And why that age? What makes a teenager a rich protagonist?
Yes, this is the current law. In Massachusetts, all defendants age 14 or older accused of first-degree murder are tried as adults, and if convicted they receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
The trial sequence in Defending Jacob is rendered about as accurately as good storytelling allows. Obviously there is compression for pace. Real trials move slowly. Technical rules play a larger part. But I didn't have to depart from reality much. Criminal trials are inherently theatrical a live dramatic performance leading to the climax of a verdict. That is why writers, practically since Plato, have always been drawn to them.
Choosing to write about a teenager was a personal as well as creative decision. I have two boys myself. They are 8 and 10 years old. Those kids mean everything to me. My books have always been about family, but with Defending Jacob I wanted to write something even closer to my heart, something that would bring together the crime world of my D.A. years and the life that I live now, of being a young father. (I should point out, by the way, that my kids are perfectly well behaved. Neither has been accused of murder, at least! Disturbing the peace, maybe. )
And adolescence is such a powerful, universal experience. Many readers will have a teenager in their lives now or remember the turmoil of being one. It's a difficult time for parents and kids both full of secrets, hormones, drama. High emotion is a storyteller's red meat.
You seem attuned Jacob's uneasy adolescent ways, particularly how he uses media Twitter, Facebook, blogging. What about the technological revolution especially as it's impacting young people fascinates you?
I'm a bit of a tech geek myself. I use all these new media. Some I enjoy more than others. (Facebook creeps me out, honestly.) But I have no doubt that, whatever you may think of the "social web," it is hard to overstate its influence on our daily lives, especially the lives of young people. These "new media" are now a routine part of how we relate to one another. They tend, ironically, to make us feel less connected. It's fitting that we call them media: they mediate, they add a filter between us that can leave us feeling isolated.
To me, there is nothing inherently frightening in kids using these new ways of communicating. Trading gossip on Facebook isn't all that different from gossiping on the phone or passing notes in class. There is one key difference, though: the reach and anonymity of the web where a kid sitting alone in his bedroom, feeling emboldened, typing on a laptop, can reach a very large audience creates the risk of disaster. Ordinary bullying becomes cyber-bullying. Teasing becomes vicious. Kids do get hurt.
In Defending Jacob, the Barbers are shocked to find what their son Jacob has been up to on the Internet. I don't want readers to be freaked out by that aspect of the story, but if they take it as a wake-up call, an opportunity to figure out what their kids are doing online, then that is a good thing.
Your book also has a science angle exploring something the book calls "the murder gene." When you're crafting evidence for a fictional piece, what kinds of research do you do into, say, contemporary uses of science in the courtroom?
The science in the novel is a very real area of research. It's usually called behavioral genetics the study of how genes affect behavior.
The subject tends to alarm people. It's important to keep this emerging science in perspective. Genes are not simple triggers. No one is hardwired to commit murder or any other crime. Our actions are always the result of stupendously complex gene-environment interactions, and environment is likely to remain the more important influence by far. Nurture, not nature. At the same time, having mapped the human genome, we are entering a new era in which we finally have real insight into the "nature" side of the debate.
The specific genetic variation mentioned in Defending Jacob, a mutation of the MAOA gene, is quite real. Linked to aggressive behavior, it has been called the "warrior gene." A few details about it were elided to serve the story, but it is generally described accurately.
I learn as much as I can about any scientific issue I use in my books, but I am not a scientist. When push comes to shove, I do fudge facts as necessary to tell a good story. I think the job of novelists and all artists, I suppose is not to portray the latest science with 100% accuracy. It is to begin to think about what science means for ordinary people in human terms. Raising questions about science, about its implications for society that is as important as science itself. We still can't build a human out of parts, but we haven't stopped thinking about Frankenstein. In its own way, Defending Jacob raises similar questions.
Defending Jacob is more psychologically upsetting than actually gory. Act for act, there's less physical violence in this book than in many crime novels only scattered incidents of bloodshed, suspected but unconfirmed murders. Nevertheless, the weight of what might have happened is heavy. Do you have a philosophy about how much actual violence to show versus how much to imply?
It's simple: I have no problem with storytellers using violence (or sex or profanity) so long as it is true to the story. The trouble comes in using cheap violence to give an easy thrill or to indulge people's worst impulses (bloodlust, misogyny). It's phony suspense. In Defending Jacob, I didn't need to show much. The foreboding actually reflects how little violence the reader sees.
I was impressed with the book's flow. I devoured it in one gulp, so to speak. Can you let us into your craft? How do you plot a thriller?
Thank you. Well, I outline fanatically. I am a long thinker and a slow writer, though I am trying to get faster. (My children have an unfortunate habit of eating. And outgrowing their clothes. Hence the need to produce more books!) Probably careful plotting reflects my personality. I am meticulous by nature. I can't imagine speed-writing anything that happens to pop into my head.
As for my typical workday, it really depends. Early on, when I am still trying to figure out what my story is, my days can be unstructured and frankly very frustrating. Toward the end, words tend to come in waves and the days get very long. The last fifty pages of Defending Jacob were written in one long sprint over the course of only a few days. I work exclusively on a computer my outlines, notes and drafts rarely ever get printed out. I often work in coffee shops. So you may see me one day, hunched over a laptop, typing madly with two fingers or (more likely) staring into space.
Who are the writers you are reading now? What recent books inspire you?One of the best parts of becoming a writer is that I have the privilege of reading advance copies of books before they are published. One of these, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson*, absolutely blew me away. It's out in January and I hope lots of people read it. Set in North Korea, it is the story of Pak Jun Do, a man who rises from miserable roots to stand beside the "Dear Leader" himself, Kim Jong-il. It is an epic story a big book in every sense and utterly riveting. Kim Jong-il's death has put North Korea in the headlines lately. I hope the increased level of interest somehow helps Adam's amazing novel find the audience it deserves.
[Johnson's novel Parasites Like Us was a Discover Great New Writers selection in 2003. -Ed]
Bonus Essay By The Author: Some thoughts on "The Unwritten Rules of the Legal Thriller"
I have been asked for a few words from on high about "the unwritten rules of the legal thriller." I would be delighted to boil down these rules to a few pithy, authoritative commandments and deliver them in a handy numbered list, like Moses or Tyler Durden. It would be helpful to have the damn things spelled out, finally. But honestly I can think of only one rule for the legal thriller, which is that there are no rules for the legal thriller. There are also no rules for the non-legal thriller, the non-thriller, or any other type of novel. It sounds pedantic, but it's true: "rules" in this context is an optimist's word for clichés. If a writer hears of such a "rule," he should break it right away. It's the only way to produce original, surprising work. Readers, after all, know the "rules" too.
This will be especially disappointing to lawyers, who take a semi-professional interest in the legal thriller and who are sticklers for rules to begin with. I hate to disappoint this audience especially, since I used to be a lawyer myself and I share their weakness for rulemaking. So here, at least, are some general principles. If you want to call them rules, well, that's your business.
A first principle of legal-storytelling, to me, is that story is more important than facts. A writer, however knowledgeable about the legal world, cannot feel bound by the truth. John le Carré put this point succinctly in an interview once: "It is better to be credible than authentic." In other words, it does not matter how things are actually done by real lawyers in the real world. You should feel free to fictionalize to improve upon reality in order to produce a good story, so long as you can do it persuasively. You will find that your fictions are often more convincing, more "true," than the truth.
There are many famous examples of this sort of embroidering. Spies never spoke of moles and honeytraps and lamplighters until le Carré invented those terms. Mobsters never "went to the mattresses" until Mario Puzo used that phrase in The Godfather. In each case, actual spies and mobsters soon took up the jargon of their fictional counterparts. Realism was more real than reality. What could reality do but follow along?
Law in particular needs this sort of dramatizing. Any working lawyer knows that in reality the daily practice of law is not the stuff of novels. Cases drag on for years. There is too much paperwork, too much technical procedure, too little drama. All those dull parts have to be edited out. On the other hand, you can easily go too far, as most lawyers-turned-writers do. The action-movie clichés of some legal thrillers the fistfights and car chases and gymnastic sex and so on obviously don't ring true. The trick is to invent just enough, to find the drama in what lawyers actually do. That is not as hard as it sounds. You simply have to recall that, in our lawyered-up society, most of the dramatic crises people face violence, injury, lust, separation, abuse of power, heartbreak of every kind find their way into the courtroom.
And when they do, what then? You have your premise, a legal case that finds its way to trial. How to describe that trial?
To me, the key is that it is not about the trial, not really. Yes, trials are inherently dramatic. They are built on conflict and confrontation. Naturally, storytellers are drawn to them. But it is always the underlying human struggle a murder, a divorce, a custody battle, a theft that is the real source of drama. The trial itself is just the setting, the stage. All the strategy, all the insider-y atmosphere of the courtroom, the cutting-edge legal issues, all the lawyers' business is secondary to the people involved. Character comes first. If the reader doesn't care about the characters, she won't care about the trial either. The entire exercise will feel sterile. It will be just another episode of "Law & Order" and who, really, ever lost a moment of sleep over "Law & Order"?
So there you have it, the iron laws of the legal thriller. Now go forth and break them.