Newton Author Explores Crime In The Least Likely Of Places

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Newton Author William Landay in the WBUR studio (Kathleen Mcnerney/WBUR)
Newton Author William Landay in the WBUR studio (Kathleen Mcnerney/WBUR)

A gruesome murder of a 14-year-old boy in Cold Spring Park in Newton. The accused killer: one of his classmates, who is also the son of the first assistant district attorney in Middlesex County.

It's the twisted plot of a new novel by Newton author William Landay called "Defending Jacob."

The book raises questions about the justice system and parenting as prosecutor Andy Barber grapples with the murder charges facing his son, Jacob. At one point, Andy gets rid of evidence that could have potentially been used against his son in a criminal trial.

"Andy is involved in this case in two capacities: he's a prosecutor and he's also a father looking at his own son who is accused of a murder," Landay said. "None of us who are parents can see our children with complete objectivity."

Here's an excerpt from Landay's book:

Our blind trust in the system is the product of ignorance and magical thinking. And there was no way in hell I was going to trust my son's fate to it. Not because I believed he was guilty, I assure you. But precisely because he was innocent. I was doing what little I could to ensure the right result, the just result. If you don't believe me, go spend a few hours in the nearest criminal court, then ask yourself if you really believe it is error free. Ask yourself if you would trust your child to it.

As this seemingly ordinary middle-class family goes through the trial process, defending Jacob's innocence along the way, more questions are raised about his innocence and his parent's ability to remain objective.

"And of course what happens here is that the two parents of this boy respond differently," Landay continued. "Andy, who has a lifetime of experience in the criminal justice system and should be the more objective one in evaluating the evidence, is actually less able to see Jacob with some distance. It's Jacob's mom, who stereotypically would be his defender to the very end, who is able to see that yes, Jacob might actually have done this."

Landay said the book is "about the position that parents find themselves in. It's about increasingly sophisticated children who are growing up to be their parents' equals. And who are withdrawing from their parents — they're increasingly carving out a private sphere for themselves, they're keeping secrets. That is a necessary process of separation that teenagers are going through and every parent will relate to that."

Landay said he picked Newton as the setting for his new book because he lives there.


"I had written a couple of books before that were more urban crime, and I thought it was funny that it was ordinary, often suburbanites, non-criminals — housewives, accountants — who would be reading about these hardcore criminals," he said.

"And there seemed to be a fantasy element to it. Crime always seemed to be happening elsewhere. It always happened in a different part of town to a different kind of person than my reader. And I wanted to close up that space. I wanted this to be every family, every reader."

The surprise ending at the end of Landay's book was also a surprise for the author himself. According to Landay, the current ending in the book was not the original, but a rewritten version.

Landay is currently working on his next book, which he said will explore the same theme in "Defending Jacob": "the eruption of violence into ordinary lives and into the lives and sensibilities of ordinary people."

This program aired on April 16, 2012.


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