Yet there he was last month at mystery writing’s highest honors, sawing away at a steak dinner in a ballroom at the Times Square Marriott. The Edgar Awards ceremony was in full swing: purple uplighting, gift tote bags printed with Edgar Allan Poe’s face dangling from the back of every chair.
At some point during the night, Comey lost his name tag. He went through the motions of looking for it — the folds of his napkin? under his seat? — before a tablemate touched his elbow and laughed: “You don’t need it.” The staffers at the registration table out front had said the same: “Well, it’s James Comey — ya can’t miss him!” The most famous FBI director this side of J. Edgar Hoover is easy to spot in a crowd, and not just because he’s 6-foot-8.
When he became head of the FBI in 2013, he was already familiar to some swath of the public for prosecuting the Gambino crime family and Martha Stewart, and for facing off with Bush officials at the bedside of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. But his handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, made him a household name. The following year, President Donald Trump fired him.
At the Edgars ceremony, Comey seemed far removed from the context in which passersby sometimes heckled him: “Thanks for giving us Trump.” “I feel like an alien that landed in from another planet!” he said. Like so many of the other attendees that night, Comey had a book to promote: his first legal thriller, “Central Park West,” out on May 30. And he was there on a mission: to show the world that this was not a one-off stunt.
“This is not just a hobby for me,” he said. “I want this to be my job.”
People who publish novels can be generally sorted into furtive daydreamers and pragmatic careerists. Comey goes in the second camp. This is not an aspiration he’s held close, or for long. He dismissed it when his agents initially pitched him on co-writing a book with James Patterson, and when the editor of “Saving Justice” (his second memoir, after “A Higher Loyalty”) suggested he might be good at writing fiction.
“I thought it would be silly, somehow — that I am a nonfiction person,” he said, then paused. “Though I don’t even know what I mean by that.” But writing fiction was “something that I think was tickling the back of his brain,” said Comey’s wife, Patrice. “It would come up every once in a while, and at some point I realized that maybe he’s taking this seriously.”
Comey has always loved to write: He contributed to his high school’s literary magazine, and reported stories and wrote a humor column for his college paper, thinking he might want to be a journalist. When he wound up in the law, he still found pleasure in the craft — in memos to the FBI workforce or even a long email. He can quote — verbatim, down to the em-dashes — a legal brief he read decades ago, as a clerk.
In good weather, Comey writes on the back porch of his home in McLean, Va., the exterior of which The Washington Post was instructed not to describe in any identifying way. (Mainly, it’s large.) Its cream interiors have been dotted for the past several years with the detritus of active grandparenthood. (“Bathroom’s around the corner — just kick aside the potty-training gear,” Comey instructed on the way into his home office.) He and Patrice are on babysitting duty a few evenings a week. He declared at least twice that, because of the time he gets to spend with the children, “getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Comey’s novels — plural; he’s already finished the draft of a sequel — are a family affair: The heroine of “Central Park West,” Nora Carleton, includes aspects of all his daughters but owes a particular debt to his eldest, Maurene, who like Nora is tall, in her early-to-mid-30s and a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. Comey first thought of the protagonist as a younger version of himself but found it more fun to write using someone else as his inspiration — though the method has its hazards: “The kids are a little creeped out,” he said. “Well, ‘creeped out’ is a strong word — it’s just that they know that they’ll be asked about it.” (Asked about it, the Comey children declined to be interviewed.)
From the start, the novels have been a collaborative effort: “The ideas are all Patrice,” Comey said. She comes up with the initial story — in “Central Park West,” a mob capo tells Nora he has intel that would derail the murder trial of a politician’s ex-wife — they hammer out the plot points together, and then he goes away and writes. She marks up the work, sometimes telling him, “You’re drifting your characters. They’re starting to sound like each other,” or typing into the document roughly what she thinks they should say, for him to fine-tune. They talk over where to plant various clues: “That was the subject of a lot of debate and rewriting,” Comey said. “How much do we need to show so that at the end a reader will say: ‘Okay, yeah, that was fair. He didn’t trick me. He didn’t mess with me.’”
The way Comey talks about moving through the world feels like something out of old Welsh lore, which tells of a king so tall that his head was in the clouds and his friends’ voices had to compete with the winds.
“The more prominent people get,” he said, “the harder it is for them to hear the truth, especially about themselves.” He gives his fiction to concentric circles of readers he can trust to be candid: After Patrice, his five children — “they love you enough to tell you when you suck” — and then, widening out, some close friends. Only then does the draft go to the professionals.
Mysterious Press might seem like an odd literary home for someone with Comey’s public profile. His nonfiction books were published by Flatiron, an imprint at Macmillan, one of publishing’s Big Five. Mysterious Press, an imprint of Penzler Publishers, is storied but small and focused, publishing about a dozen books a year; its founder and president, Otto Penzler, is an editor’s editor. Macmillan had more than a million copies of “A Higher Loyalty” in print within a week of its release. Mysterious Press has ordered 50,000 copies — quite a lot by its standards — as the first run for “Central Park West.”
“I told the printer, ‘Make sure you have enough paper, because I’m expecting to do another 50,’” Penzler said during a phone interview. It will probably be the imprint’s biggest release this year, the company’s publisher, Charles Perry, told me at the Edgars dinner. The other heavy hitters are a Christmas novella and a post-Soviet thriller slated for June — “and I hope it’ll be half as big as [Comey’s],” Perry said, with a half-smile.
“It’s a signal to the world that I’m not doing this as a, ‘He’s taking up stamp collecting, how nice,’” Comey said of choosing Penzler’s outfit. Penzler puts it this way: “I am fairly famous for being a pain in the ass. I want everything to be absolutely right, and I’m not afraid to tell you about it.”
Comey’s initial pitch was for a book focused on law enforcement and race, set in Richmond, where he served as assistant U.S. attorney for five years. With everything that’s happened since, it’s easy to forget that he first made headlines as FBI director for endorsing the “Ferguson effect” (though he didn’t embrace the term itself), positing that increased public scrutiny had made police officers more hesitant, leading to a higher incidence of violent crime. That preoccupation hums in the background of both his previous books: what he calls the “separate parallel lines” of law enforcement and the Black community in America — how they’re “arcing away from each other” and what it would take to “help bend the lines back.”
Penzler passed on the manuscript, for reasons he prefers not to articulate, but he liked the idea of a novel drawing on Comey’s experience with the mafia. (“Let’s just say I’m a New Yorker, and so the New York thing appealed to me more,” Penzler said. “Can we leave it at that?”) Comey sketched out a scenario for what would eventually become “Central Park West” and had a first draft ready within six months.
Not much about Comey’s novel is surprising, once you’ve gotten over any surprise that it exists. “Central Park West” could double as a DOJ recruitment ad. The good guys are racially diverse, with flawed but fundamentally sturdy family lives. The bad guys have simple motivations, like power and passion. The dads long to reconcile with their sons. The criminals live by a code. The hero’s instincts — especially about the true gravity of a lonely fact — are sound. Like all mysteries, his novel promises that the world is knowable.
Plus: “The book has no politics whatsoever,” Penzler said. (At the suggestion of Luisa Cruz Smith — Mysterious Press’s editor in chief and a co-editor of the book — they cut the party affiliation of the governor who is murdered on Page 4.)
Comey had a “bring it on” attitude when it came to edits, according to Smith, eager to improve. At their first lunch to talk through the draft, Penzler told him outright that, of the first 40 pages, half were unnecessary: “You know, you walk past a building, it’s the Thurgood Marshall building, and ‘Well, he was a member of the Supreme Court, he was the first Black justice’ — I don’t need a history lesson!” He told Comey what he’d told so many other authors: “Don’t show off everything that you know.”
Comey has staked his career on the question of disclosure. It seems like everyone in America has been angry with him, at some point, for his decisions about what to reveal, and when — for his seemingly imperturbable certainty when it comes to the proper pace of revelation.
What do you tell people, and when, so that they feel satisfied — or at least not betrayed? By pursuing mystery-writing — “until,” he says, “I’m old and foolish” — he seems likely to circle that question all his life.
Mystery writers are a sociable bunch, regularly gathering at a circuit of networking events: Left Coast Crime, Sleuthfest, New England Crime Bake. They trade blurbs and reviews, yes, but also edit anthologies, speak on panels, teach workshops. Part literary citizenship, part publicity hustle. It doesn’t much resemble what Comey (depending on your viewpoint) either enjoyed or endured back in the spring of 2018: the prime-time gauntlet, the Trump tweets, the book party at the now-defunct Newseum. Anticipation for that first memoir was so high, and so heated, that Amazon had to limit online reviews to verified buyers.
Comey’s certainly signed up for his share of industry appearances, including a talk (“Insider’s View of the FBI”) at ThrillerFest XVIII, a convention in New York. When he says he wants to write mysteries for a living, he can’t mean it literally — five years ago, Town & Country estimated his net worth to be around $14 million — but he seems to mean it seriously. “He’s the hardest-working author we have,” Penzler said. “A lot of them will turn down a reading if they think they’ll only sell 50 copies.” Comey’s still very much the man who refused to cut in line at the FBI cafeteria, and also the man who told us that, in his memoir.
His next mystery will take place at a fictional version of the world’s biggest hedge fund, inspired by his stint as general counsel at Bridgewater Associates. The one after that will probably focus on terrorism. “D.C., to me, is so toxic right now that I’m not ready to go there,” Patrice said. “I like staying in New York for a while.” But yes, Comey said, there will inevitably be a Washington arc, maybe something set in the world of defense contractors. Finally, then, he might get to return to the idea that started this whole thing, that novel set in Richmond: “There are really interesting questions, I think, to explore there about policing.”
That night at the Edgars, Comey clapped for all of the nominees. He asked questions about best practices for in-person book signings and learned exactly what makes a mystery “cozy.” When a judge for the “best novel” category approached and said that he’d been working on a book based in D.C. — “Your story, and some other things, have been the inspiration; I’d love to send it to you” — Comey kept his expression immaculately neutral and handed over his personal email address. Earlier, someone chatting up the Mysterious Press staff had turned to him and asked, with all apparent innocence, “So — are you a writer, too?,” and a smile broke across Comey’s face.
When the party was over, and others filled their Poe tote bags with books to take home, Comey folded his corner to corner and presented it to Smith. Then he walked off, strides long and loose, looking remarkably unburdened.
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