Forgetting my own difficulties
Sometimes life leads you down a William Landay rabbit hole.
Landay is the author of Defending Jacob, a book I loved when it came out eleven years ago. It tells the story of a talented prosecutor, Andy Barber, who has a son and a wife he adores. One day his son is accused of murdering another boy in his class. Andy loses his job as a prosecutor, and, far worse, his family is torn apart.
Though I’m a big fan of crime novels, I tend not to remember them once I’m done. But I never forgot Defending Jacob. I wondered now and again whether Landay had written anything new, but he hadn’t—until now. All That Is Mine I Carry With Me came out a couple of weeks ago. Landay also gave an interesting interview recently on The Writer Files, during which he noted that Defending Jacob is exponentially more popular than his two earlier crime novels, which were critically acclaimed but didn’t sell well:
You know, it’s not enough to be good, you have to be a little lucky, too. I remember hearing an interview with Paul McCartney. And somebody asked him once if, when he was composing songs with John Lennon, he could tell which ones were going to be hits and which wouldn’t. And he said not only could he not tell which songs would be hits, whenever he tried to guess he was always wrong. I had a little bit of that experience with Defending Jacob, too. It didn’t seem to me like there was anything obviously better or worse about it [than my earlier books]. But it just took off.
This got me wondering: If I read Landay’s earlier books, would I agree that they weren’t obviously better or worse than Defending Jacob? And how would I rank the newest book? I already owned a copy of Landay’s second book, The Strangler, so I read that, along with All That Is Mine I Carry With Me. I also re-read Defending Jacob.
This reading perfectly suited my frame of mind because, once again, it’s been a rough stretch. Both of my parents got sick at the start of March; my eighty-seven-year-old dad ended up in the hospital. Things have turned a corner now, thank goodness and knock wood, but it’s been a challenging month. And crime novels are my favorite way to forget my own difficulties.
I’d like to be able to say to Landay, “You’re right—it was just luck. The Strangler is absolutely as good as Defending Jacob.” But I can’t.
The Strangler isn’t bad. It focuses on three brothers in the 1960s in Boston: one’s a police officer with a gambling problem, one’s a talented thief, and one’s a prosecutor. There’s lots of sibling tension, but they unite to try to find the Boston Strangler. I don’t mind having read it, but the characters felt a little too familiar as types to me; and they never fully came to life as individuals.
Defending Jacob, meanwhile, is flat-out great. For one thing, the ethical stakes are intriguing. If your child is adamantly denying that he committed a crime, and the evidence against him is fairly damning but not open and shut, what do you do? What if you and your spouse disagree? I felt viscerally the tension building within this family, and the pressures coming from the outside community.
The cocksure voice of Andy, the father and narrator, is particularly compelling, too. On the one hand, he’s a no-bullshit, hold-nothing-back storyteller. I want to know all that he’s seen and has to say. On the other hand, he’s so very certain and unyielding—we know he’s not letting himself perceive the full reality of the situation, and we know it can’t possibly end well. His conviction is eminently believable in a male prosecutor, and tragically misguided here. The disconnect between his assuredness and his wrongheadedness works really well.
I recently heard one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Strout, say that voice is the key to getting readers to turn pages. Her books are lyrical and character-driven, which often equates with slow. But Strout is a genius at creating distinctive and mesmerizing voices, and her novels really move.
Which brings me to All That Is Mine I Carry with Me. At least in part because it lacks the singular, powerful voice of Defending Jacob, it’s less engrossing. Still, it’s better than The Strangler. In All That Is Mine, a woman goes missing when her youngest child is ten. Investigators suspect her husband, Dan, but they can’t prove it. The couple’s three children are left to be raised by Dan, and they have to decide whether they believe he murdered their mother. Landay is very good at thinking through the effects of crime on family dynamics. The story’s told from several different perspectives, and it covers many decades. It’s engrossing; it raises interesting questions; I recommend it. But if you’re only going to pick up one Landay book, choose Jacob.
I’d had enough crime fiction after my Landay journey, so I picked up something very different: Eddie Glaude Jr’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. Writing after Trump’s election, Glaude says he’s trying “to think with Baldwin about this troubled period in American history.” He discusses the evolution of Baldwin’s view of race in America, how Baldwin’s later writings have been undervalued, and how engaging with all of Baldwin’s work sheds a light on the destructive dynamics we’re facing today. It’s an absorbing and enlightening book. I like what Jennifer Szalai says in her review in the New York Times: “Even if you don’t agree with Glaude’s interpretations, you’ll find yourself productively arguing with them. He parses, he pronounces, he cajoles.”
What do you read when you’re going through a rough stretch? Do you also pick up crime fiction? Does it help you to read books full of ideas, like Glaude’s? Send recommendations, please! Just hit reply above. And if you’d like to hear more on the topic, take a listen to me and my podcast co-host Eve on an upcoming bonus episode of Book Dreams.
Here’s hoping we’ll all have a joy-filled, restful April.
Bye for now—