Diane Prokop recently had a chance to talk to bestselling author William Landay. Landayʼs third book, Defending Jacob, is #6 on the NYT bestseller list for the week of March 11, 2012. Read her interview with Landay to ﬁnd out why itʼs creating so much buzz.
What is Defending Jacob about?
Itʼs the story of a senior-level prosecutor in the district attorneyʼs ofﬁce outside Boston
whoʼs called upon to investigate the murder of a 14-year-old boy. Heʼs sent out to the
crime scene and ﬁnds the dead boy stabbed three times across the chest, thrown down
a ravine and left to bleed out. The evidence ultimately points back to the prosecutorʼs
own 14-year-old son whoʼs a classmate of the dead boy. When the investigation turns
back to his own family, this prosecutor is removed from the case and ultimately removed
from the district attorneyʼs ofﬁce and is called upon to investigate the case himself and
join the defense effort at trial.
Defending Jacob doesnʼt seem to be just a murder mystery. Can you talk about
the underlying thread of the story?
I think if you just hear the premise of the story it sounds like an ordinary mystery, but
really the book is about family and human behavior and what makes us do the things
we do. To me, crime novels are always about human behavior. We use crime as a
window into why we do the things we do. In this book, thereʼs some suggestion that
Jacob, the boy accused of the murder, has inherited a genetic predisposition to
violence. This takes advantage of fast-developing real science, usually referred to as
behavioral genetics which suggests that there are certain genetic mutations associated
with a predisposition to violence.
I think the book will be especially frightening to parents. Did you set out to do
No, I didnʼt think of it that way! Iʼm not that calculating. It was sort of the other way
around. I have two little boys. Theyʼre eight and ten now and so it was becoming a
parent that sensitized me to the feelings of parents and to the dynamics of families. I
think thatʼs an important point for readers. This isnʼt a story about a monster. This is the
story about an ordinary teenager. Obviously, most ordinary families are not going to be
put to the test the way the Barber family is in this case, but parents are going to
recognize a lot of the feelings these parents have as they begin to investigate their own
child and learn how little they know about their own son.
This begs the question, “Does anyone really know their child?”
Well, as any parent will tell you, as your children reach the teenage years they are
gradually growing away from you. Theyʼre out of your presence most of the day. Who
knows whatʼs going on? Many of them, especially boys, are inexpressive, secretive and
Although your main character, Andy Barber, is a dedicated D.A., your book paints
a fairly scary picture of the jury process. Is it accurate?
Thereʼs no reason to think that twelve laymen plucked off the street will be especially
good at determining the truth. That is the dirty little secret behind all of our trials.
However, Andy for all his cynicism about the expertise of juries, is a believer in the
system and heʼs devoted his life to the system and he thinks of his job as a prosecutor
as a sacred calling. In that way heʼs an interesting narrator and very reliable. One
aspect of the book thatʼs interesting is that Andy is narrating the story as heʼs testifying
before a grand jury. He is under oath, and to a guy like Andy Barber, who is a 27-year
veteran of the system and truly believes in the system, he simply wonʼt lie under the
There are so many great twists and turns in the story. I like the way the story
starts with Andy being cross-examined, but you donʼt know what for.
I love stories that are structurally complex and tricky. To put the narrator inside the story
as heʼs telling the story is a device that I didnʼt invent. Movies like the Usual Suspects or
No Way Out, where you have someone testifying within the movie, allows you to have a
narrator who is at once reliable and untrustworthy. It puts the reader on notice that she
has to be aware of who this guy is and the situation in which heʼs telling the story. It
means you never quite know whether you can trust the story youʼre getting.
You have a gift for picking up on the small details that ﬂush out a story to make it
come alive. Is that something you picked up as a lawyer or were you a good
lawyer because you have that ability?
Itʼs two things, really. People who are drawn to law in the ﬁrst place are often people
who are verbal and who have a facility with writing. Itʼs one of the few professions that
ﬁnds a comfortable home for young people like that who donʼt necessarily know where
they are going. Itʼs also true that in the practice of law, particularly in trial practice, what
youʼre involved in, really, is storytelling. When you stand up in front of a jury, you are
trying to convince them that your story of the case is the more compelling story. When I
was a D.A., I went to a national training program for young prosecutors and I was taken
aback to hear a lawyer telling me that you have to go into a trial with your story of the
case. Thatʼs the story you make of these random facts and random pieces of evidence
that donʼt necessarily coalesce into a coherent story. Until you can make them into a
narrative, you have no chance of convincing a jury. So, you have to learn to be a
storyteller. The other thing is that lawyers have a lot of material to write about because
weʼre privy to people who are in extreme situations.
The writer John Irving says that he writes the end of his stories ﬁrst and works
his way back to the beginning. Did you know the end when you started the book?
No, and not only did I not know the end when I ﬁrst submitted it, it had a different
ending. We had a lot of discussion about how the book should end. One thing I wanted
to capture is the position that parents are in when they hand you a baby in the hospital.
Youʼre taking a chance. Youʼre accepting this person into your family and you donʼt
know what youʼre getting. Whatever complications and problems that little human being
brings into your family, you have that for life. The parent-child relationship is permanent.
So I thought it was important to capture the position that these two parents were in
given that they have this child who presents certain complications in their life. Itʼs hard
to square that with a ﬁtting climax in a book that needs closure when what I wanted to
capture is precisely that there is no closure to the parent-child relationship. That was the
dilemma we had in talking about the ending in trying to ﬁnd a dramatically satisfying way
to conclude a story about a relationship that by deﬁnition doesnʼt conclude.
Your writing is being compared to Scott Turow and John Grisham. Thereʼs also
talk of your writing transcending the mystery genre and jumping into literary
ﬁction. What are your thoughts on that?
Every lawyer who writes a book about law is compared to them. Iʼve read Turow and I
loved Presumed Innocent and this book purposely hearkens back to Presumed
Innocent. I donʼt think of my self as a genre writer at all. People tend to put me in the
mystery genre because Iʼm writing books about crime, lawyers and trials. But to me, lots
of stories about crime are not crime stories. Macbeth is a murder story. Iʼve never felt
the least bit constrained by having to talk about crime. I feel like I can talk about
anything through the prism of crime.
William Landay is the author of the novels Mission Flats and The Strangler. The ﬁrst won the Dagger Award as best debut crime novel. The second was nominated for the Strand Magazine Critics Award as best crime novel of the year. His third novel, Defending Jacob, was published January 31, 2012.