Oct. 22, 2009

A Favorite Review

I don’t want to turn this blog into a sellathon for my books. I am quite bad at self-promotion, probably because it makes me so uncomfortable.

But as I’ve been transferring material from my old web site to this new blog, I ran across a review of The Strangler that I particularly relished and want to share here. It was not widely read, I am sure. It appeared in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, the professional journal of the local bar, on May 28, 2007. I would have missed it myself if some lawyer friends had not pointed it out to me.

I love this review because it was written by a veteran criminal defense lawyer who actually knew Boston in the Strangler era and because it focuses on the accuracy of the historical detail. Factual accuracy is lost on most readers. They show up for the story, as they ought to do. The setting may seem vivid and convincing to them, but they have no way of judging its authenticity and they don’t give a damn anyway.

When I first took up writing about crime, as a former A.D.A. I resolved that my books would be accurate to the last detail. They would be “true.” Cops and lawyers would pick them up and nod their heads in recognition: “That’s how it really is!” I quickly learned how foolish that was. It is more important to tell a good story than an accurate one, better to be credible than authentic, realism is not reality, etc., etc. These are basic rules. But the truth is, authenticity still matters to me, probably more than it should.

Local writer pens novel of killer’s stranglehold on Boston

By Norman S. Zalkind

“The Strangler,” by Newton’s own William Landay, is an extraordinary portrayal of the underbelly of Boston in the early 1960s. It is Landay’s second contribution to the crime-novel genre, his first being “Mission Flats” (the fictional name of a gritty city neighborhood in Boston), in which he showed his skill at turning out a page-turner.

Having grown up in and around Boston when the events portrayed in Landay’s latest work took place, I am amazed at his ability to accurately reconstruct one such history-making event: the tragic destruction of Boston’s West End neighborhood and its replacement with a so-called urban-renewal project that destroyed a vibrant, working-class immigrant community.

Landay’s story of an infamous strangler feels like the Boston-based movie, “The Departed,” with non-stop violence seen through the eyes of the three Daley brothers: Ricky, the skilled burglar; Michael, the Harvard-trained lawyer; and Joe, the World War II veteran, compulsive gambler and Boston cop who is corrupted by his addiction.

The Boston Strangler investigation was on everyone’s mind in the Boston of 1963. A killer had taken the lives of a dozen victims, and the city was shaken.

Landay, a Boston College Law School graduate and a former assistant district attorney, postulates the theory that Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to the crimes (and was later murdered in prison), was really not The Strangler. Many in the legal community agree with Landay’s thinking.

But this attorney/author dismisses any suggestion that his background in criminal justice might explain his facility for writing on that topic. “I am leery of my own credentials,” he told The Boston Globe in a recent interview. “People look at me and focus on the fact that I was an assistant DA and project all sorts of things on my books, as if that is some sort of guarantee of authenticity. But the credential guarantees nothing.”

Nonetheless, Landay can spin a tale of murderous intrigue. “The Strangler” is fast-paced, filled with relentless suspense and mayhem. The Daley boys’ father, a Boston police officer, is killed under mysterious circumstances, and the brothers suspect their father’s partner, Conroy, of the killing.

The story becomes more complicated when, after the father’s death, Conroy moves in with Joe Daley Sr.’s widow, Margaret. More complications arise when Margaret is attacked by a man the sons believe is the real “Strangler.”

Joe, the cop, becomes a pawn for the mob, but he is both good cop and bad cop at the same time. The good-cop side of Joe leads him to investigate the forced removal of families from the West End. When he stands up to the mob, and doesn’t get his burglar brother Ricky to return diamonds he allegedly stole, Joe and Ricky become objects of mob contracts.

Former ADA Landay is able to capture the criminal-defense scene the way it was in the early 1960s. The defense bar was dominated by natives of Massachusetts — and Boston in particular. The colorful F. Lee Bailey and others of his ilk — Joe Balliro, Bill Homans and Paul Smith, among them — could definitely have been the lawyer characters in this novel. Boston’s non-white-collar criminal defense bar is today still dominated by locals, but they are nothing like their legal forebears of 40 years ago.

Landay’s constant use of local street language reveals his in-depth knowledge of a storied era and brings color and humanity to his writing. He reveals his relative youth only when he has the Boston detective carrying 9 mm firearms instead of the .38-caliber guns that the police used in that earlier time.

This lawyer novel is most impressive in its focus on crime and the city. It is a great fast read that unfolds like a screenplay. You will be impressed with the way the writer integrates homicide investigations, political corruption, mental illness, organized crime, love, humor and much more. ♦

Norman S. Zalkind is a longtime Boston criminal-defense attorney.

As for that gun, it is the one detail of the book that I changed when The Strangler was reissued in paperback. Joe Daley now carries a .38 as he should, thanks to Mr. Zalkind.

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