‘Defending Jacob’ author guest speaker at Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society luncheon

Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society Chapter President Candace Humber, author William Landay, Chapter Leader Gayle Allen of Northern Trust. Photo/McKenzie Images

By Joe Tash

In a critical scene from the legal thriller “Defending Jacob,” the main character, a deputy district attorney, discovers a knife hidden in his teenage son’s drawer just after the boy’s schoolmate was found stabbed to death in some nearby woods.

Rather than turn the knife in for scientific testing, prosecutor (and father) Andy Barber decides to throw it away, convinced the weapon will cast undue suspicion on his son.

William Landay, himself a former prosecutor, is the author of “Defending Jacob,” and was the featured speaker at the Tuesday, March 19, meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society at The Grand Del Mar.

In an interview before his talk, Landay said a number of people have asked him about his character’s action, and whether that is something a real-life prosecutor would — or should — have done.

Landay recalled being approached by a retired homicide investigator at a reading, who told him, “Of course I’d get rid of it.”

And Landay, the father of two young boys, agreed.

“I would do anything for my boys. I’d walk through fire for them. I’d get rid of that knife, in Andy’s shoes, I’d do that in a heartbeat,” said Landay.

One of the central dilemmas of the book is Andy Barber’s inner conflict between his sense of duty to the community where he has lived and worked as a prosecutor, and his bonds of love and loyalty to his son. The novel, Landay’s third published work, chronicles the arrest and trial of Andy Barber’s son, Jacob, and the effect it has on Andy’s family.

Landay said he did not set out to become a crime novelist, but had an urge to write for many years that he indulged in his spare time whenever possible. His work as a prosecutor in the Boston area during the 1990s gave him many stories to work with, and made him feel comfortable writing about the world of criminals, courts, detectives and attorneys.

After writing part-time, and even taking sabbaticals from the District Attorney’s office, supporting himself by bartending and dipping into his retirement savings, Landay decided to leave his job and see if he could make it as a writer.

The pressure to make a living at writing intensified when he got married and his wife became pregnant with the couple’s first child. They were at the obstetrician’s office for a pre-natal checkup when his cell phone rang. The call was from his agent, Landay said, informing him he had a deal to publish his crime novel “Mission Flats,” along with a second book yet to be written.

“Defending Jacob,” which came out in 2012, is Landay’s third published novel, and film rights to the book were purchased last year by Warner Brothers.

Now that Landay has three published novels under his belt (he’s written several others that remain on his computer’s hard drive), he isn’t anxious about whether he can make it on a professional level. But he still worries about continuously improving as a writer.

“It never gets easier. I feel like an absolute beginner every time,” Landay said. “It’s a privilege to have a job where you’re tested every day. I have a lot of sleepless nights and that’s the trade-off.”

He conceded that his insecurities may have more to do with personality than his chosen profession, because he recalled similar anxieties when he was working as a prosecutor.

“Defending Jacob” also examines the weaknesses of the criminal justice system in which Landay worked for nearly a decade.

“I do not believe in the court system, at least I do not think it is especially good at finding the truth. No lawyer does. We have all seen too many mistakes, too many bad results. A jury verdict is just a guess — a well-intentioned guess, generally, but you simply cannot tell fact from fiction by taking a vote,” Andy Barber muses at one point, early in the novel.

During the interview, and also in his talk before the audience, Landay said our present legal system hasn’t changed substantially since the Magna Carta, a 13th-century English document that limited the absolute power of monarchs over their subjects.

Under our criminal justice system, said Landay, the entire burden of proof falls on the prosecution, which must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Even loading the dice that much (in favor of defendants), are we satisfied there are enough safeguards built into the system?” he said. “I don’t know what the answer to that is.”

He also spoke about our enduring fascination with stories of crime and punishment.

“These are ancient, primal stories and we consume them over and over,” he said. “Stories about criminal acts and urges tell us something about ourselves.”

The Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society is sponsored by Northern Trust. For information about the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, contact chapter leader Gayle Allen at 858-824-1203.