"Most of my life is like, how did I end up here?”
That’s James Comey talking—a guy who has prosecuted the New York mob, been one of the eight human beings in history to run the FBI, held that press conference in October 2016, was a certain ex-president’s favored Twitter punching bag for a time, and now, as he speaks, is sitting in a conference room at the Janklow & Nesbit office in Midtown Manhattan discussing Central Park West, a kaleidoscopic crime novel he wrote involving the Mafia and the murder of a former New York governor. Mysterious Press is sending it out into the world in May.
So, yeah, not a common career trajectory, but this latest unexpected twist, adding novelist to his CV, is one the 62-year-old is all in on. At the Janklow offices, he’s dressed like he’s ready for his author photo shoot, having traded the sober suit-and-tie combo for a dark green blazer, gray sweater, jeans, and sneakers. There’s a brightness about him, and he’s much more animated than his podium performances of the past would suggest. He’s almost downright smiley as he makes it known that this whole novel thing isn’t a lark. “This isn’t stamp collecting or something,” he says. “This is what I want my living to be.”
This isn’t Comey’s first time at the publishing rodeo. His 2018 memoir, A Higher Loyalty, was a bestseller and relentless headline generator, and its 2021 follow-up, Saving Justice, took a longer view of his career in law enforcement and how the Justice Department operates. Zack Wagman, Flatiron’s editorial director, worked with Comey on both of those and is responsible for putting the fiction bug in his ear.
“He kept nudging me and nudging me and saying, ‘Look, someday you really ought to give it a shot. You could show people the worlds you’re interested in through fiction in a really cool way,’ ” Comey says. “That sort of percolated and percolated, and then I sat down to talk to my amazing spouse, who has great story vision. And she said, ‘I wonder if you could do a story about New York, about the Mafia.’ So I started working on baby steps, and I found it to be so fun, and so much harder than writing nonfiction, but it drew me in.”
That was spring 2021, and Comey established a masochistic process of getting feedback (sometimes, he reports, “brutal” feedback) from his wife, Patrice, every morning based on what he’d written the day before. They’d have coffee, go over her notes, see which birds were hanging out by the bird feeders out back, and then he’d set up shop on his laptop and grind away until he ran out of steam. Some days he’d put his head down and look up and hours would have passed by. Other days were inert. But soon enough, a story came together, and Comey got hooked.
“I’m excited about this,” he says. “This is what I want to do until I’m old and foolish. I don’t know how people will react to it. I hope they like it. But it’s a strange place to be in, doing something totally different, and caring whether it works or not. And that’s also exciting, but it induces some nervousness.”
It wouldn’t take much imagination to picture the knives being especially out for this one (and if you really want to go somewhere dark, imagine the venom coming from anonymous online reviewers), but the truth is: the book works. It’s solid and convincing, and its secret sauce is the lived-in details that can only come from someone familiar with those five steps leading up from Centre Street to the grim “Soviet-looking” Manhattan courthouse where criminal trials are heard. There’s the drab, leak-prone offices federal prosecutors toil in; the impossibility of getting a lunch order delivered, since their building’s address isn’t agreed upon; the opulence of some halls of justice, the linoleum glory of others; and the vagaries of life as an up-and-coming assistant U.S. attorney.
This latter bit comes courtesy of the character Nora Carleton. She’s a single mom; lives in Hoboken, N.J.; and is a pro at hitting the sales to piece together a wardrobe befitting someone representing the nation in court. As the novel opens, Nora’s working a mob case with a cooperating witness. In another courtroom nearby, Kyra Burke stands accused of murdering her estranged husband, former New York governor Tony Burke, who had covered himself in #MeToo shame. The reader knows from the prologue that Kyra’s innocent and was framed, but it’s up to her very expensive defense attorney to prove it.
The two cases converge after Nora’s witness is found dead in the trunk of a car, two bullet holes in his forehead and his mouth full of canary feathers. Benny Dugan, a full-on youse guise federal investigator who makes former Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz sound like Morgan Freeman, helps stitch it all together—who really killed Tony, and how it happened.
Which is to say, Comey’s had his hands on the real-world versions of all these moving parts. That experience shows, and the trick became the classic fiction writer’s dilemma of showing, not telling. Patrice helped with some of this, as did Comey’s agent, Janklow & Nesbit’s Kirby Kim, who sold the book to mystery legend Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press on a partial and proposal.
“When I first met Otto,” Comey says, “I said to him, ‘One of the challenges of becoming a prominent person is it’s hard to get people to tell you the truth.’ When I was FBI director, it was something I obsessed about, because everybody dressed up when they came to see me, they stood up when I came in the room, but are they really going to tell me when I suck? And Otto said, ‘No problem! You have come to the right place.’ Doing a crime novel with Otto as your editor—that, to me, is a dream. But part of the dream is, he will blast you when you need blasting.”
Mysterious Press editor-in-chief Luisa Cruz Smith was the other member of what Comey calls his “dream team.”
“Louisa’s knife is every bit as sharp as Otto’s, but it comes in at a more oblique angle,” Comey says. “That’s kind of cool when you have two people like that coming at you. With feedback, my first reaction is, just tell me it’s great. And then, when they don’t, it’s like, thank God they didn’t blow smoke at me.”
If the stars line up for this one—they are starting to, with a murderer’s row of blurbers having blurbed and an eight-city U.S. tour planned—it could mark the beginning of a very long run. Comey’s just wrapped up a draft of a second novel in a planned trilogy. That would be the first of three series—one set in and around New York, then D.C., then Richmond, Va. There might even be a fourth one in there, in Chicago.
Minutes before sitting down to talk, Comey saw his ARCs for the first time. He’s got one in his hand, sort of sizing it up, and you can actually see it sinking in: the realization that this very long path he’s mapped out in his heart is materializing.
“I’ve always loved bookstores,” Comey says. “This may sound weird, but it’s the way they smell. I haven’t done this recently, but I did it many times after A Higher Loyalty was published—I’d go in and find my book, sign it, and slip it back on the shelf, or sign a bunch of them and slip them back on the shelf. And so I have that same flashback: this will be in bookstores, and I will travel around, which is fun, and see it. But it’s so different from my identity in a way. With Higher Loyalty, that’s about government, and that’s kind of who I am. This is an identity I haven’t fully adjusted to yet. And so I picture it on the shelves, and I don’t know how that’ll feel.”