Author of the Month

Name: William Landay

First Novel: Mission Flats

Most Recent Book: Defending Jacob

'This is a complex, multi-layered work of the highest quality. '

At home, Andy Barber is a quiet family man, a devoted husband and father. At work, he is a trusted senior prosecutor, the District Attorney’s right hand and master trial lawyer. When a teenager boy is found dead in the woods near Barber’s suburban home, naturally he takes on the investigation, as he has countless homicides before. But the case may be Barber’s undoing: in a terrifying swerve, Barber’s own 14-year-old son, Jacob, is accused of the murder.

The boy insists he is innocent, and Barber rallies to his son’s defence — as any father would, he thinks, as any father must. But defending Jacob exacts a terrible price. Neighbours lock their doors against him. Jacob’s classmates refuse to talk. Barber’s marriage begins to crumble as his beloved wife Laurie buckles under the relentless pressure of suspicion. Finally, as Jacob’s trial intensifies, Barber faces a trial of his own, in which he is forced to confront his own secret history, a past he thought he’d buried long ago.

As a fan of William Landay’s earlier work I was already excited to see that he had eventually gotten around to writing another book and to add to my sense of anticipation the early word on this novel was as positive as any writer could hope for. It seemed the great and the good of mystery fiction were queuing up to heap praise on the book. This raised a question in my mind; hyperbole or deserved?

In answer, ‘Defending Jacob’ is a stunning piece of fiction and well deserving of every note of admiration received. I can’t remember the last time when I was so emotionally invested in the characters of a novel.

This is a complex, multi-layered work of the highest quality. It combines the mores of a psychological crime-thriller, with courtroom drama and a study of a family caught up in a nightmare. The way in which Landay charts the emotional rollercoaster of a family who fears their child is a murderer is nothing short of hypnotic. We see this mostly through the eyes of the boy’s father and his refusal to believe that his son could ever commit such a deed. And then the doubts creep in. And then certainty of innocence takes over. As I said earlier, this novel is hypnotic.

This is not a book to race through. It is an intelligent, thought-provoking novel that sets off every parent’s concerns about violence, social media and our children. ‘Defending Jacob’ will grab you by the throat and toss you aside, exhausted and emotionally wrung out after you read the last page and that final devastating twist. Can I give it more than a five, out of five? I would if I could. An amazing read!

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) What makes a truly great crime/thriller novel?
I doubt there is a single answer to that. Great thrillers do not necessarily resemble one another or succeed in the same ways, for the same reasons. Usually when we try to reduce these things to a handy set of rules, there are a thousand exceptions. Writing is an art, not a science.

So I would answer by saying that, to me, crime and suspense novels succeed or fail for essentially the same reasons that all novels succeed or fail. There is not a special set of rules for thrillers. A novel is a novel.

There is a different emphasis in thrillers, of course. Thriller writers tend to emphasize plot and pace over lengthy explorations of character, place, or theme. But like any other sort of novel, a thriller has to make the reader understand and care about the characters, otherwise they will not care what happens to them. A book with too-thin characters will be a throwaway read — fun perhaps, a diversion for a few hours, but not moving or memorable.

The opposite is also true: even the highest of highbrow novels has to entertain the reader, has to give her a reason to keep turning the pages. A boring book will simply go unread, no matter how artfully it is written. This is a dramatic art, after all. If the drama is not compelling, an essential part of the project has failed.

A good book ought to be like a good companion at a dinner party: smart and entertaining in about equal measure. That’s the sort of book I like to read, personally, and it is the kind I try to write.
2) Raymond Chandler once wrote of crime fiction that the "mystery and the solution of the mystery are only what I call 'the olive in the Martini'". What’s your view?
Chandler was right. At this point, so late in the life of the genre, the audience has seen a thousand of these stories before, not just novels but movies and TV shows too. There are very few tricks left for a writer to discover. Audiences have become expert at noticing when the magician slips the rabbit into his hat. The odds of leaving a modern reader truly astonished at the outcome of the mystery are vanishingly small. So the story has to be about more than just the mystery itself.

In ‘Defending Jacob’, the guilt or innocence of young Jacob Barber is only one question among many. The story is really an exploration of the anxieties and problems that all families face. This isn’t a “bad seed” sort of story, about a beady-eyed demon-child possessed from birth. It is a story about an ordinary family and a relatively ordinary child. That is what makes it haunting.
3) ‘Mission Flats’ was out in 2004, ‘The Strangler’, 2007, and now ’Defending Jacob’ in 2012 – do you feel like an old hand at writing now?
No, never! I don’t imagine I’ll ever feel like an old hand. On the contrary, I feel the limits of my talent every day, like a straitjacket. I don’t know that writing is the sort of art that can be mastered, really. Every project is a new and completely different challenge. And for a writer of any ambition, every project you choose is more difficult than the last, so the scope of the challenge will always exceed whatever gain in skill you may achieve. If a writer’s reach does not exceed his grasp, why bother? There are easier ways to make a living.
4) Readers often try to look beyond the story to work out how much of the writer is in the main character, so we may as well get that one out of the way – how much of you is in Andy Barber?
That’s a tricky question. The simple, rote answer is: none. Andy is a fictional character. He speaks in the first person and shares some biographical details with me (a father, a prosecutor, a suburbanite), so it is natural for readers to imagine my own voice in Andy’s. But it isn’t so, at least not in such a simple way. But the more accurate answer is complicated and imprecise. Every character is refracted through my own mind, my own sensibility, so inevitably every character is a splinter of myself. Andy no less than the other characters. (Jacob, too, surely draws on my own teenage self, though I have not stopped to analyze how — and don’t intend to).
5) Could you describe the launch point for the premise behind ’Defending Jacob’?
Andy Barber is the top lieutenant in a Boston-area prosecutor’s office. A master trial lawyer and veteran of the criminal justice system. Called out on a routine murder in his hometown — a schoolmate of his own 14-year-old son Jacob has been stabbed to death in a local park — Andy is surprised when the case boomerangs back toward him: Jacob himself is accused of the murder. From there, Andy is left to defend his son, his family, and himself against a relentless prosecution that seems determined to destroy them all.
6) Much of the popular media (TV, film and books) that we get here in the UK depicts North American schools as pretty torturous places. Does it worry you that the kids might try to live down to that image?
A little, maybe, but only a little. This is really a way of asking the usual question about whether the portrayal of violence in the media will inculcate our children in violent behaviour. I don’t think kid-on-kid or schoolyard violence is distinctive in this regard. There is a tiny sliver of the population, here and abroad, that might be influenced by those sorts of images, but it is hard to imagine a novel carrying that sort of weight with contemporary teens. Also, ‘Defending Jacob’ is not especially graphic or incendiary in this regard.

The truth is adolescence is a hard time for any kid. In real life, for most kid’s violence, bullying, and all the other melodramatic outrages we see in the popular media play only a small part. The more mundane, typical trials of teen life — the little agonies of social, sexual, and intellectual awakening familiar to every kid — are about the same here and in the UK, I suspect. Most kids are just trying to get through.
7) The advance buzz on ‘Defending Jacob’ was very impressive. Some big name authors were tripping over themselves to tell us how good this book was — did that bring any added pressure — and how nice did that feel?
No added pressure; Lord knows, I put enough pressure on myself without worrying about what others will think. But it was very nice to feel supported by my fellow authors. This has been one of the real lessons of writing for me. When you are just starting out, the world seems to conspire against you. You imagine the whole publishing world is a cutthroat, zero-sum competition in which one writer’s success somehow reduces your own chances. It just isn’t so. My “competition” has been unfailingly supportive, encouraging, generous, and respectful from the very start. Writing is a solitary business, but there is a community of authors, of sorts, and it is filled with wonderful, smart, supportive people. (No shortage of characters, too).
8) You have been writing standalones so far. Was this a conscious decision or an accident?
A conscious decision. I have always felt that each instalment in a series is a stunted sort of novel, unable to deliver the sort of real life-or-death drama and satisfying dramatic closure that the best novels do. This is especially true at the more commercial end of the spectrum, where novels are meant to be read in any order, which obviously precludes major changes in character or situation.

Lately I have begun to mellow on this, however. I enjoy some series and would love to create one someday. The trick is to find a memorable protagonist and a situation that rewards repeated visits. If I were to write a series, I would like it to be one that avoids the inherent shortcomings of the genre. I don’t want to resort to a series just because it’s easier or more lucrative. I would want to do it only if I could do it really well. I have yet to find an enduring, distinctive protagonist that could support such a series. But I am always mulling it. Stay tuned.
9) There has been a good gap in years between each of your releases. Please tell us we don’t have to wait three or four years for the next one. What is your normal writing regime?
I certainly hope it won’t be four years before the next one! As for my writing regime, it really depends on where I am in the process. At the start, it is very hard to have regular writing habits because you have only a few ethereal, inchoate ideas in your head. As you progress from conceptualizing to writing, obviously things start to move faster. Toward the end, when I am writing well, I am at it a full day, usually 8 or 10 hours a day. But the real work probably boils down to only 4 or 5 hours out of that day. After that, my brain just burns out. The trouble is you never know which 4-5 hours out of the day will be the productive ones. There is a lot of wheel-spinning. It’s just part of the process, for me anyway.

A lot of the gaps between my books has been because of projects that were started and abandoned. That is, it has not taken me four years to write each book. More like two. But I have lost whole years at a time to failed projects, all for different reasons. Obviously I hope to cut that out. I doubt I will ever be one of those book-a-year machines, but I do intend to get faster. John le Carré has maintained a steady clockwork pace of a novel every two years. I’d like to do the same, and to maintain it as long as le Carré has, too.
10) What is your favourite crime/thriller novel of all time?
Too many to name just one. Here are a few crime novels off the top of my head: ‘Billy Bathgate’ by E.L. Doctorow; ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’ by George V. Higgins; ‘Presumed Innocent’ by Scott Turow, to which Defending Jacob obviously owes an enormous debt, as does every courtroom drama of the last 25 years or so. As for thrillers: ‘Day of the Jackal’, ‘Marathon Man’ (though I saw the movie first, which may have biased me in favour of the book), and ‘Rogue Male’.