G Force

The next chapter for ex-DA

John Earle

William Landay, a Newton writer and former assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, recently published his third crime novel, ‘‘Defending Jacob.,’’ which has just been optioned by Warner Bros. It’s (surprise!) the story of a Newton assistant district attorney in Middlesex County whose teenage son Jacob is accused of murder.

Q. How did an assistant district attorney become a writer?

A. In law school I knew I wanted to write. I just didn’t know that I could. When I did set out to write, it was not to be a novelist; it was to write one novel. I finally sold that first novel [“Mission Flats’’] after 10 years of trying, and it was a two-book contract. That was the negative side of the contract.


Q. What happened those 10 years?

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A. There were several novels that were not published, and they never will be. In fact, my last action will be to erase the hard drive of my computer so no one can publish the manuscripts.

Q. When you were an assistant district attorney, did you have one crime novel in you that was burning to get out?

A. It isn’t as if there was one story burning to get out. And I don’t like to think of them as crime novels. They are novels which happen to be about crimes.

Q. What’s your problem with crime novels?


A. Readers and booksellers tend to ghetto-ize crime novels in a certain way. They limit crime novels to a certain writing style and a certain plot. “Hamlet’’ is a crime story. “Macbeth’’ is a crime story. They’re obviously not the hard-boiled detective novels that people usually [think of] when they refer to that genre.

Q. Boston has the reputation of being a great setting for crime novels. It’s got a lot of the necessary ingredients - bad weather, old cemeteries, and plenty of places to dump bodies. Why did you pick suburban Newton?

A. I live in Newton, and so I know it well. More importantly I was looking for an ordinary community. We always reserve a certain distance between criminals we read about and ourselves. I wanted to close up that space, to bring crime directly into ordinary families and eliminate the fantasy that it only happens to other people. I wanted my audience to really face the fact that we all have these capacities.

Q. Did your experience as an assistant DA shape the story?

A. My life was not dramatic enough to be the stuff of novels. There were very few car chases and fist fights in my life as a lawyer. The great advantage of being an assistant DA is that you can speak comfortably about the criminal justice system and court system without doing research. I don’t know that any amount of research can give you the naturalness that readers can feel and that gives the book a credible sense of authenticity.


Q. Do you miss that life?

‘We always reserve a certain distance between criminals we read about and ourselves. . . . I wanted my audience to really face the fact that we all have these capacities.’

A. I liked it a lot. I really miss the people I worked with, and to go from a very social life of assistant DA to the solitude of a writer is a big adjustment. I don’t know I would have lasted a lifetime, though. It’s a very hard job. Those people are true heroes. We should appreciate them more.

Q. Was this story inspired by one of your cases?

A. Jacob came from a lot of real cases. You encounter them and stir them together in your imagination, and what comes out in the end doesn’t resemble any of them.

Q. Why did you pick a name for one of your main characters that’s impossible to pronounce?

A. Logiudice? Everyone asks me that. I honestly don’t know. It violates every rule of writing. It just seemed to me that he was a character who needed an awkward name - a mealy-mouth kind of person. It just seemed to suit him.

Q. “Defending Jacob’’ climbed high on the charts very quickly. How do you account for that?

A. It’s a story about a family that doesn’t know their child, and I think that’s why people have responded to strongly. The anxieties and fears Jacob’s family feels are the worries every parent feels. We all worry that we don’t know our children, especially when they become teenagers and more secretive. What investigators found suspicious about Jacob Barber are ordinary behaviors you see in a lot of teenagers.

Q. When you give book readings, how do you prevent the audience from talking about what happens?

A. It’s a very tightly wound book, and it’s very hard to talk about it without giving much away. I don’t want to give away spoilers. I try to discuss the issues without going deep into the plot. I’ve had people blurt out important points during readings, and it’s very awkward. It takes the fun out of the reading experience.

Interview was condensed and edited. Linda Matchan can be reached at