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Interview: February 2, 2007

February 2, 2007

William Landay, author of MISSION FLATS, loosely based his second novel THE STRANGLER on a series of murders that took place in Boston in 1963. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Landay reveals why such grisly events peaked his interest and discusses the various factors that contributed to the city's overall mood of fear, loss and anxiety during that period.

He also describes why he has such an affinity for that particular place and time despite its negative context, draws similarities between the atmosphere of the '60s with today's post-9/11 mindset, and explains which of his unlikely protagonists he sympathizes with most. The Boston Strangler case was a riveting one, and much has been written about it. What element(s) of the case inspired you to write THE STRANGLER, which uses the case as a real-world impetus for a broader story about a family whose members straddle both sides of the law?

William Landay: In general terms, I think of crime stories as a way of talking about larger issues. Crime stories --- if they're treated seriously --- can be so rich and suggestive about place (since so many of the issues at play in a society, so much of what is in the air, condenses into criminal cases) and about people (since crimes by definition are forbidden things, and therefore criminals seem to embody our own hidden, forbidden instincts).

So I was drawn to the Boston Strangler case not because of the case itself. I wasn't interested in rehashing the details of the historical Boston Strangler. As you say, that's been done. Instead, I saw it as a window into this faraway, unreachable place: the city of my birth in the year of my birth, 1963. I am endlessly fascinated by this city, and I think of my books as a way to explore it. But if this book were only about Boston, I would not expect too many others to be interested.

It's important to point out that Boston in 1963, to me, is one of those dramatic historical moments, those pinpoints in the map. Hey, it's not Paris in 1919 or Berlin Between the Wars; but in its own rough-and-tumble way, Boston in the year of the Strangler was a special place --- reinventing itself, enduring great stresses. Obviously there are parallels to be drawn between then and now: a 9/11-like national disaster (the Kennedy assassination), the anxiety about random terroristic murder (the Strangler). These things resonate today. I don't mean to suggest that Boston in the time of the Strangler was exactly like America now; history never repeats itself exactly. But I think that if readers will come along with me and visit this place, they will find the mood there, on the streets, a very familiar one. And that's a comforting thought, isn't it? When times are tough, as they are now in many ways, it's good to know that others have been through worse and gotten through it.

BRC: THE STRANGLER ultimately is not so much about the Boston Strangler murders as it is about the Daley brothers, three very different siblings who are internally and externally a mass of contradictions. Ricky, the burglar, is in many ways the most upright; Joe, the policeman, is easily the most corrupt; and Michael, arguably the most successful professionally, is an unhappy underachiever. How did you come to conceive the Daleys? And how did it occur that you placed them in that time and place, the early 1960s and in Boston?

WL: The Daleys began as a composite of a few big Boston Irish Catholic families that I knew growing up. I was a nice Jewish boy from the suburbs, but I went to a private school in the city and several of my best friends came from these families. Of course, family dynamics aren't all that different no matter what your background is, but the complexities are multiplied when there are six or eight kids jockeying for position. So my original conception of the Daley brothers was that there would be more than three --- a lot more. The trouble, of course, was that there would not have been enough time to develop all those characters without killing the momentum of the story. A suspense story has to move. The need for fast pacing is always in tension with the need to slow down and develop your characters, and the writer needs to find the right balance.

I wanted to explore family dynamics, and to me, these brothers do embody some of the different types that seem to recur among sibling sets. But how many would I need? In the end, I settled on three because these were the three characters I just could not let go of, and because I come from a family of three kids, I suppose. Also --- and this will sound unbearably pompous coming from a writer of meatball mystery novels --- I was thinking of the Karamazov brothers, another threesome who had a few father issues, if memory serves.

BRC: I was impressed with the structure of THE STRANGLER. The book is a series of rotating vignettes, each of which moves the narrative along even as it heightens the suspense. Which of the three brothers --- Joe, Michael or Ricky --- did you find to be the most interesting? Which of them was the easiest to write about? And which of them was the hardest? Did you find as you were writing THE STRANGLER that you tended to focus too much on one of the brothers over another?

WL: Thanks. I've always liked multi-thread stories like this one, which benefit from the tension generated by intercutting among different storylines and by the gathering excitement of how the whole swirling, sprawling thing might eventually come together (or collapse). Complex plotting is fun to read --- a root canal to write, but fun to read.

Regarding the tendency to focus too much on one brother: It's funny you ask this question, because one brother, Joe, did seem to take over the story in places. That came as a complete surprise to me because he is the brother who is the least like me. Of course, all three brothers are in some ways aspects of myself; I did invent them, after all. But I never anticipated that Joe --- who is bullish and inarticulate, brutish but also decent --- would grab my attention and my sympathies the way he did.

As I wrote, it kept bearing in on me how poignant Joe's situation was: to be thickheaded in a world where only the quick survive; and worse, to be dumb in both senses, to be so unable to conceive complex ideas that thought itself becomes frustrating and speech almost impossible. To a writer, whose life is committed to articulate thought and expression, that sort of muteness seems like an exquisite sort of torture.

The other thing about Joe is that, in a story that is partly about how three sons deal with the legacy of a lost father, it is Joe, the firstborn, who accepts this patrimony. The two younger sons reject their father's life in various ways. Joe is the one who becomes a cop like his father, who tries to live his life the way his father did. As a middle child, I did not expect to sympathize with that approach --- such easy acceptance, such complete lack of creativity or rebelliousness. But as I wrote, it kept occurring to me what a weight that must be, to try to live up to a (dead) father, to measure yourself against that. It must take courage.

So I loved Joe. Of the three Daley boys, I imagine people will admire Ricky, who is romantic and remote, and empathize with Michael, who is tortured and self-doubting. But they will love Joe for his very simplicity. I did, anyway.

BRC: The assassination of President John F. Kennedy occurred around the time of the Boston Strangler murders, and indeed the assassination hangs like a shadow over the events of the novel. You implicitly compare the investigation into Kennedy's assassination and the Boston Strangler investigation on a number of levels. Do you think that the Kennedy assassination indirectly influenced the investigation into the Boston Strangler murders?

WL: No. At least not in a way that interested me as a novelist. To me, the connection between the JFK assassination and the Strangler murders was that both contributed to this mood, this communal sense of fear and loss and anxiety. It is that Zeitgeist that makes Boston in 1963 seem so present and alive to us now. I suppose you could say that this mood contributed to the rush to close the case prematurely --- to relieve the unbearable anxiety (and publicity) the Strangler murders were causing. So in that attenuated sense, the Kennedy assassination probably affected the way the case was handled. Beyond that, I would not hazard a guess.

BRC: Do you have an opinion on Albert DeSalvo's guilt or innocence? Do you think that the murders associated with him, as the Boston Strangler, were committed by more than one person?

WL: I don't have a definite opinion on DeSalvo's guilt or innocence. I think that, so long after the event, we probably will never have definitive resolutions to these crimes. Nor do I claim to have any special insight into the case. Everything that I looked at in my research is freely available to the public, if anyone is interested. Obviously, there are enormous gaps in the evidence. Equally obvious, the prosecutors in the case had no confidence they could convict DeSalvo in court, since they never charged him --- never even brought the evidence to a grand jury, a decision that is otherwise inexplicable. And yes, certainly the weight of the evidence seems to point to more than one killer.

But I approached this case not as a lawyer or historian. I'll leave it to others to debate the merits of the case against DeSalvo. I don't write "true crime." The importance of the case to me, as a novelist, was in how it affected the people around it, how a city --- a society --- under enormous stress and fear can react.

BRC: THE STRANGLER deals with events that took place roughly around the time you were born, yet you manage to capture the era, the mores and the attitudes very clearly and accurately. What forms did your research take?

WL: I read everything I could get my hands on and I talked to everyone who would talk to me. In particular, I was helped by two old Boston P.D. cops named Jack Daley and Ed Tobin, who shared with me lots and lots of insider stuff about the cop life in Boston in this era. Jack Daley in particular gave me such an avalanche of material that I had to leave out some of the best stuff. Basically, the way it worked was that Jack and I talked extensively at the start, then as I wrote, he would be available by phone to give me the little detail I needed to get things moving. It was always something I did not expect.

One example will have to suffice. One of the threads in the novel concerns a Mob war that actually took place in Boston at this time. In the actual event, one gangster had the misfortune to be cut into small pieces and packed into two suitcases, which were left outside a hotel. I called Jack to ask, What was the name of that hotel? He could not remember, but he had a detail that was even better: The killers took care to arrange the body so that the head faced out, as if to greet whoever opened that suitcase. That detail made it into the book. What I left out of the book was this: the BPD detective who first saw the open suitcase exclaimed, "I know that face!" A pitch-perfect line! Alas, it didn't fit my story, and it was one of those things that actually happens in life but is too neat and too clever for fiction, so it had to be left out. So it goes.

BRC: More than three years have passed since you published MISSION FLATS, your debut novel. What have you been doing in the interim?

WL: Working! I actually spent a year or so working on another book that was to be the follow-up to MISSION FLATS. Ultimately, together with my editor, we decided to put it aside and start anew with THE STRANGLER. But a lot of time was lost. (And a lot of gray hairs were added to my head.)

Anyway, I'm not sure that three years is that long, is it? I am leery of the book-a-year expectation. There are writers who can do it, of course, and more power to them. But many --- most --- cannot, and it is every writer's first obligation to produce the best book he possibly can every time out. At least he ought to try. If that means he will produce books at a rate slower than one a year, then history will forgive him, I think. After all, there is no special consideration given to a book that is written quickly. If a book is crap, it is no defense to say, "Yeah, but look how fast I wrote it!"

BRC: THE STRANGLER is a very different book from MISSION FLATS, though both share Boston as a setting and are strongly preoccupied with the concepts of guilt and innocence. Can you talk to us a bit about why you set books in Boston and work with this theme?

WL: Well, determining guilt or innocence is the main business of criminal law. I take your point, though: we're talking about guilt and innocence in more than the legal sense. But isn't guilt and innocence at the core of the public fascination with crime? And with drama's eternal preoccupation with crime and criminals? "Bad men do what good men dream." And "what good men dream," in a nutshell, is the stuff of all good drama.

As for the Boston settings, it's what I know. I'd happily set my books in Bangalore, but I don't know the first thing about it. This is where I live. Always have, always will.

Besides, I am convinced that you do not have to go far to find the universal stuff of crime stories. What makes a crime story compelling is not an exotic setting but all the things that transcend, that lift the case above the parochial. What your next-door neighbor has buried under the floor of his basement may well be more interesting than what some prancing detective is uncovering in a drawing room in, well, Bangalore.

BRC: You have a background as an assistant district attorney, a vocation you share with Michael Daley in THE STRANGLER. Based on what you learned in your research, can you share anything you might have done differently from what was actually done during the investigation into the Boston Strangler murders?

WL: No. Obviously, a lot of things could have been done better. But it's awfully easy from the comfort of 40 years' retrospective to say what I would have done better. It's important to remember that the investigators were not villains. Obviously they wanted to find the killer(s) as much as anyone else did. And obviously there were plenty of talented, hard-working detectives working the case. This was the case, remember; no resources were spared, detectives included. So how to explain the inadequacy of the evidence against DeSalvo, the obvious holes in the case? They were working under incredibly intense pressure --- political pressure, media pressure, social pressure --- and as we have learned over and over, that environment usually leads to bad results. Surely that is part of the answer.

BRC: Are there any particular factors that caused you to turn to writing and away from your legal career?

WL: Actually, I liked being a lawyer. I'm a little conflict-averse --- probably I would not have lasted forever as a trial lawyer. But I enjoyed my time as an A.D.A., especially the great people I worked with.

To borrow your phrase, it was more a matter of turning toward something than turning away. I'd always dreamed of being a writer and I figured, as I was turning 30, that I'd better get to it before time ran out.

If you want to have a family and kids and mortgages and all that, it's wise to get through the whole unpublished writer phase of your life first. So I took several years to learn the craft. I turned out two very bad novels while I tended bar and did various other odd jobs. As it turned out, I did get married and my oldest boy, Ted, had almost been born when MISSION FLATS sold. In fact, my wife and I were at the obstetrician's office listening to the baby's heartbeat on a monitor when my cell phone rang with the news that we'd received a first offer.

So my (unpaid) apprenticeship ended in the nick of time!

BRC: Are there any authors in particular who have influenced your work, either topically or structurally?

WL: Lots. Too many to name. Let's see, among thriller writers, I tend to like the old Englishmen with their refined style: Graham Greene in his "entertainments" mode, Eric Ambler. I remember when I was a kid I had a book full of short stories in this voice called GREAT TALES OF ACTION AND ADVENTURE, which included "Leiningen Versus The Ants" and "The Most Dangerous Game" and my absolute favorite, Saki's "The Interlopers" (I have a weakness for gotcha endings). I loved those stories and read them over and over. It was like "Masterpiece Theatre" for kids. Can't wait to read them to my two little boys.

A lot of "crime writers" out there are writing really good, lasting stuff. Richard Price and Scott Turow come to mind. Elmore Leonard is good for entertainment, in a completely positive sense. Outside the genre, it's the usual suspects: Roth, DeLillo, Lethem, Updike (though his recent books haven't held my interest). I'm sure I'm forgetting a million others.

I get a lot of inspiration from movies, too. Cinematic storytelling is, by its nature, very condensed and plotty. I've learned a lot about plotting by studying great crime and detective movies (Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, The Untouchables, Vertigo --- that list also goes on and on).

BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?

WL: Forget it, pal. I've already made lots of mistakes in my young career, but talking about unwritten books is not one of them.

Somebody asked Miles Davis once if his music could properly be called jazz. "I'll play it first," he said, "and tell you what it is later."

I'll say something similar here: I'll write it first...