When Bill Landay presented a draft of his third novel to his agent a few years ago, provisionally called The Combat Zone, she trashed it. Landay, who had written two award-winning crime novels, Mission Flats and The Strangler, went home with "my tail between my legs," he told the South End Library's audience last month. And proceeded to "cannibalize" the manuscript for what he could salvage. One of the draft's characters was based on a case he had heard about when still a Middlesex district attorney under Tom Reilly, the state's attorney general at the time. It involved a homicide detective in a seaside town on Long Island, NY, whose father had been executed for murder, and whose son was accused of killing a drug dealer in self defense. It was made into a movie starring Robert de Niro, City by the Sea. The generational shuffle between murderers and practitioners of law enforcement also became the central theme in Landay's crime novel, Defending Jacob, which has now sold 1.3 million copies, with sales --especially through book clubs where the thriller is a favorite selection-- still going strong.
Leaning comfortably against a library's oak table, Landay explained to the more than fifty listeners who came to the last author's talk of the season on June 10 that when he was a Middlesex DA, he always felt "the action was elsewhere." You only learn about it through the witnesses," he added. When he turned thirty, he decided to take a stab at writing about that sort of action. He cashed out some of his retirement money, moved into his mother’s basement and tended bar on the side. His first two crime novels were well received but had meager sales. Defending Jacob took off quickly, even though it was his third novel, often a hard sell. Set in Newton, MA, where devotion to family life, professional success and the drive for student achievement reigns supreme, the novel describes in excruciating detail the emotional toll exacted by the community on a family whose son is accused of murdering a classmate who bullied him. The father was a respected DA but, during the trial, it's revealed his father was in jail for life for murder, something he had not even told his wife. Does one ever know one's spouse, one's child, is the theme running through the novel, a question Landay holds up and dissects in this gripping thriller, while not giving away the answer, even if there is one.
Landay’s personal life includes raising two young sons and having an estranged relationship with his own father. He said he constantly asks himself what it means to be a good father, physically and emotionally. He finds it a ‘sobering’ thought that everything he does is watched by his kids, who learn from it. “It’s like having a spy in the house,” he said. The author also commented that, when a couple is expecting a child, everyone hopes nothing goes wrong physically. "But what if it is a difficult child," he asked: "Emotionally and psychically is where the high stakes are because you can’t divorce your child. You can’t meet the baby first. The personality and temperament of that child will be in your life forever." Calling himself not so much a writer as "an ordinary guy who writes books," Landay likes to go to schools and show kids "how it is done."
It was important for Landay to avoid what’s often the case in crime fiction, namely that it’s formulaic and stale before the words hit the page. So he decided to start off with the scientific angle, namely the possibility of what is called the murder/warrior gene which, at the time, he thought was fictional but which has since become "a developing science." However, unlike the case central to Defending Jacob, the so-called murder gene, a common mutation carried by many, is carried through the mother, not the father. Another role reversal in the novel was that Jacob's mother suspected early on her son Jacob could have killed his classmate, while the father decided to stick with the child, right or wrong, trapped perhaps by his having reinvented a life for himself where his personal rules precluded any other option.
Landay did not read from Defending Jacob but generously spoke for more than an hour and-a-half about its genesis and did not stop until the last question from the audience was answered. "This is my last night out for this book," he declared. "I'm now concentrating on Page One of my next novel."