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His cases have become mysterious

Lawyer-turned-novelist digs up dirt in old Boston

Using 1960s Boston as a backdrop, William Landay uses historical fact to guide his second crime novel, 'Strangler.' Using 1960s Boston as a backdrop, William Landay uses historical fact to guide his second crime novel, "Strangler." (DOMINIC CHAVEZ/GLOBE STAFF)
By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / March 20, 2007
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NEWTON -- The prosecutor's life is excellent on-the-job training for the writer's trade, novelist William Landay found. That, plus a fascination with his native Boston, provided much of what he needed to tell his kind of story.

Landay went straight from the Middlesex district attorney's office to his writer's room, eager to tell stories about politicians, cops, culture, and crime, set in a city of uncommon riches for a novelist. "Boston is not Boise," said Landay, whose second novel, "The Strangler," has just been published. "It has history, different groups of people and cultures -- the mob guys a few blocks from Beacon Hill, everybody cheek by jowl."

Landay, 43, always liked to write and loved reading fiction, but his career change from lawyer to crime writer was not as well planned as a prosecution. "I don't know that I projected it as a career," he said in an interview at his home. "It never crossed my mind that I could make a living doing this. The plan was to write a novel."

"The Strangler" creates a picture of Boston as it was in the early 1960s. Three Irish-American brothers -- a cop, an assistant prosecutor, and a petty crook -- become enmeshed in the Boston Strangler murders, a turf war among gangsters, and the mystery of their father's murder. It's full of local details: Gainsborough Street, St. Joseph's Church amid the ruins of the demolished West End, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the Chantilly Lounge in the Combat Zone. In addition to such real figures as Strangler suspect Albert DeSalvo, the book is peopled with thinly disguised fictional versions of superlawyer F. Lee Bailey and Attorney General Edward W. Brooke.

He researched and included the other public events of the period: Walter Cronkite's 1963 documentary about Boston corruption, "Biography of a Bookie Joint"; the string of gangland killings over control of local rackets; the assassination of John F. Kennedy; the demolition of the West End, and the urban renewal program proudly called "the New Boston."

To those with long memories, the book is a striking reminder of how Boston has changed. In 1960, it was a dowdy backwater. Apart from upscale parts of Beacon Hill and the Back Bay, mostly what showed was a drab, low-rise downtown and run-down neighborhoods near a rat-infested waterfront ringed by falling-down sheds and wharves. Tourism was minimal. Schools were a disgrace. The harbor was a cesspool.

"Boston is now this prosperous, beautiful place," Landay said. "That other Boston was much grittier, and that was part of the genesis for the book. It could easily have become a Detroit or Newark that died and became a shell. I wanted to reanimate that other Boston." He added, "I'm not interested in whether DeSalvo was guilty or not. I'm more interested in how the city reacted to the case."

A walk on the gritty side
In court, Landay had his own contact with the gritty side of life. Born in Boston and raised in Brookline, he went to Yale, then to Boston College Law School, graduating in 1990. He wasn't in love with the law but had no other firm career idea. "I wanted to try it, and thought of it as a way to explore the world, see other people's lives," he said. "That's why the DA's office appealed to me. I thought it would be a way to see life in the raw."

He was hired in 1991 by Tom Reilly , then Middlesex district attorney, and sent to the Lowell District Court. In Lowell, Landay said, "you were handed a lot of responsibility early. I loved the adventure of it. Lowell had great crime -- by which I mean challenging cases, a lot of drug stuff, gang and gun violence, so much to do that you got to try a lot of cases quickly." With the lesser cases -- drunk driving, small drug pinches -- there was what he calls "a short-order cook's mentality. They would hand you a file and say, 'Go try this case,' and you had to read the police report as you walked up to the courtroom."

The DA's world had sharpened Landay's feel for character, narrative, and dialogue. It was, he said, "a great way to learn about other people's lives, about a side of life that you're not going to learn about in a downtown law firm. One thing I heard [crime novelist] George V. Higgins say is that going over transcripts, which is what I was doing at one point, is a very good way to study dialogue."

It also fed his longtime craving to be a writer. Between 1991 and 1997, he twice took leave to write novels, and survived -- he was unmarried at the time -- by living on his retirement savings, as well as "bartending, all the things starving writers do." Then he would return to the district attorney's office and try to write in his free time. Two novels were written and abandoned.

Reilly, now in private practice, remembers Landay well. "He stood out as a gifted prosecutor," he said. "He was working his way along, progressing very well, definitely on a short list of people who were going places. But his heart was in his writing."

In 2000 he got married. He received an offer for what became his first published novel, "Mission Flats" (2003), while he was at the obstetrician's office with his wife, Sue, listening to their first child's heartbeat (they have two boys). The book, about a Boston murder investigation -- Mission Flats is a fictional Boston neighborhood -- won a Dagger award for best first crime novel.

'Boston is his canvas'
Kate Miciak, executive editor of Bantam Dell, Landay's publisher, names Landay's grasp of the Boston setting as a distinctive facet of his writing. "He told me that he's a Boston kid," she said by phone from New York. "Boston is his canvas, but it's not parochial. It's about the layers of things and the way precious things get torn down. That seems to be a theme with him: He's fascinated by how Boston destroys and regenerates itself."

Though his books are marketed as suspense thrillers, Landay is keen to avoid being pigeonholed. "I don't think of myself as a crime novelist," he said. "I think of myself as a novelist who happens to write books about crime. Serious writers of all kinds -- Shakespeare, Dostoevsky -- have written novels about crime."

However, he's finished with the courtroom, at least from within the bar. He's not rich, but he says he's making his living as a full-time writer, and he's pondering his next book -- most likely set in Boston.

"I'm that lucky guy who is doing exactly what he wants to be doing," he said. "When I look down the road, what I want to see is a shelf of 20 or 25 books. I want to see how good I really am. I want to be great."

David Mehegan can be reached at

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