Defending Jacob is a Mystery that is Three Parts Family and One Part Crime
Defending Jacob author, William Landay, was at Powell’s last night and he was a very happy man. He should be, considering he just found out that his book will debut at #4 on the NYT bestseller list. The buzz about this book has been deafening, and once you read it, you’ll know why. His first book, Mission Flats, won the John Creasey Dagger Award as the best debut crime novel of 2003 by the British Writers Crime Association. The Strangler, his second, was shortlisted for the Strand Magazine Critics Award as the best crime novel of 2007. Defending Jacob is likely to out-perform both of those.
Landay broke from tradition and didn’t read from his book because he said, “This is the kind of book that is so tightly wound that you can’t talk about it at all without spoiling something.” The ex-D.A. opted instead to talk about some of the more interesting aspects of the story line. “If I tell you just the premise of this mystery, it sounds like an ordinary mystery novel. What I want to make clear to you is what separates this from the mystery/suspense novels that fill aisle after aisle back there, and which I lie awake nights thinking about, is that this is really about the family that’s going through this case. It’s not just a ‘whodunit.’ If you count the pages devoted to the ‘whodunit’ versus what it does to this family, it’s three to one (three parts family, one part whodunit), at least. The real interest in this story is what it’s like to be under the thumb of the government. In this case, we have a family that’s faced with the question of how far would you go to protect your child even if you thought your child was dangerous and could be harmful to other people.”
This brought him to the topic of the “murder gene” that figures prominently in this story – the ramifications of which are something that I’m sure sent chills down the spines of everyone in the audience. “The temperaments we have – our personalities – are controlled by hardwiring to a degree that we don’t like to acknowledge, and yet we know is true. When it comes to bad things like being violent, being untrustworthy, being deceitful, we don’t like to think that you can inherit these things. The problem is that science is pointing exactly that way. There are studies that associate particular mutations with violence.” He tried to reassure us by saying nurture will always be more important that nature, but I know some in the audience were probably quietly going down their list of relatives wondering who might, perhaps, have that angry gene.
On why we read mystery/thrillers he said, “We find something in crime stories that tells us something about ourselves, and that’s why this is such a durable genre. We’ve been telling crime stories to each other for a thousand years or more, and why is that? Why are we so fascinated with these sorts of stories? The best statement about this that I’ve ever heard was by a psychiatrist. He said, ‘Bad men do, what good men dream of.’ What we’re looking for in these stories is some window into our own nature. Something that tells us why people behave the way they do.”
When Landay was 30 and working as a lawyer, he got it in his head to write one novel. “It never occurred to me to say, ‘I’m a novelist and this is what I’m going to do for the next 50 years.’ There were no writers in my world growing up, and it didn’t even cross my mind that you could support yourself doing this. So the goal was to write one publishable novel, see my name on the front of the book, and then go back about my business. I figured, I’m a smart guy and I can read a few of these books, crack the code, and I’ll just write that one book and I’ll go back to life as it was before. It turns out to be much harder than that.”
Landay doesn’t have any formal training in writing and, in fact, never took a writing class. “I spent all of the 1990s teaching myself by trial and error how to write a decent book. I wrote whole books that were awful. You go by trial and error and it costs you a lot of time. It’s a very inefficient way to do it. I don’t recommend anybody doing it the way I did it.”
When he finally got a manuscript that was workable, it was 2001. By then he was married and they were pregnant. They went to the obstetrician’s office to hear the heartbeat of their first child, which was the official closing of his window to try and become a novelist. “Kid comes, you have to grow up and give this thing up. While we were waiting to see the obstetrician, that’s when my agent called and said, ‘You have an offer and it’s a two-book deal. So, in a two-book deal, the downside is you have to write another book. So that’s how you become a writer.”
But he said that it’s not really a career. “I think for any creative artist, you go from project to project and there’s no job security. There’s no guarantee that there’ll ever be another book. It’s a career when you get to the other end and you can look back on it and impose some kind of logic on it.”
Random House, 2012