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Former FBI Director James Comey has a new title: crime novelist

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As I read the new novel "Central Park West," there was a scene where I had to pause and chuckle. Now, this is a novel about a murder and about the mob - serious stuff. And the scene has to do with the notorious sniping and tension between the Manhattan DA and the U.S. attorney's office, which sit two blocks apart in New York City and which, according to the author, do everything in their power to steal cases from each other. Now, what made me chuckle is who was writing this scene - James Comey, former director of the FBI, also former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and now crime novelist. Jim Comey, welcome.

JAMES COMEY: Thanks for having me. It's great to be with you.

KELLY: Why try your hand at fiction?

COMEY: Because an editor of nonfiction nudged me to, and at first, I resisted. And the farther I got from the work, easier it became to think about giving it a shot. And so I decided to try and found it addictive. And now I want this to be my job.

KELLY: Really? I did see that you've already written the sequel to this, so this is not just a fling for you.

COMEY: Yeah. It's not a hobby for me. I need to have a job. And I found this harder than nonfiction but a lot more fun. And it would be wonderful if I could do this until I'm old and foolish, so I've already written the sequel.

KELLY: All right. Well, let's talk about this one. And I'll start by asking you to introduce us to Nora, who is your protagonist. She is a young prosecutor. I gather she may have more than a little bit of your daughter in her.

COMEY: Yeah. Nora Carleton is a federal prosecutor in Manhattan working in the violent and organized crime unit. It was inspired by my oldest, who, when I was writing this, was the chief of the violent and organized crime unit in Manhattan and was prosecuting Jeffrey Epstein's co-conspirator, Ghislaine Maxwell.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Did you bounce any of your scenes off your daughter as you wrote?

COMEY: Yes. I insisted she read the whole thing and give me loving but direct and brutal feedback. And she leapt at the chance, and she gave me all kinds of ideas, including - she pointed out, Dad, you have my office on the wrong floor.

KELLY: Oh, boy.

COMEY: And so I moved her office from six to four and apologized.

KELLY: You know, when you write fiction, you're always trying to figure out, what details are going to bring this character to life for my reader? And one that stuck with me about your character Nora is that she shelled out for Brooks Brothers shirts, and then she paid to clean and press them every week. And you write that the reason is when she wore them in court, she was representing the United States of America. And the first time she rose in court and said, you know, Nora Carleton for the United States, your honor, she got chills, and they had never fully gone away. Would you elaborate on that feeling? - because I'm guessing that's something you must have experienced.

COMEY: Yeah. I was capturing something that I felt. I remember that feeling of standing up in a federal courtroom and saying that. And it was at once this sense that I'm doing something that had purpose and was really important that I do in the right way. And I know it seems corny, but it's real. I mean, the people who are doing this work find having the United States as a client to be a burden and a tremendous joy, one that makes the hair stand up when you - back of your neck when you first identify yourself with it.

KELLY: Another character to ask you about, Benny. Describe who he is. And I'm curious if he was inspired by anyone.

COMEY: Benny Dugan is a six-foot-five, 250-pound Brooklyn native who is an organized crime investigator who works closely with Nora. And I knew the greatest organized crime investigator ever, a guy named Kenny McCabe, who died way too early in 2006. And I've tried to capture the essence of Kenny in that character. The two of them have a back-and-forth where he calls her Miss Smooth, a testament...

KELLY: Yeah.

COMEY: ...To her being good on her feet. And she calls him Mr. Rough. I drew that from the regular routine that I had with Kenny McCabe.

KELLY: Towards the end of the book, you have Benny deliver something of a sermon about the mission. He says, our job is to lock up bad people to protect good people. I've never really thought of our job as finding truth. Our job is to live in gray. Is that Benny talking or Jim Comey?

COMEY: Well, both. I mean, he's trying to channel something that I learned through my career - that there's a difference between truth and justice. You can know something in your heart of hearts, but the justice system is built around the question of, can you prove it? But it's something you learn when you deal with cases. Bad people sometimes get away, and we've set up the system that way so that we reduce the chances of innocent people, of good people being unfairly convicted.

KELLY: Jim Comey, while I've got you, I'm going to throw you a question on a real-life case unfolding in a Manhattan courtroom to deal with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. These are charges to which Donald Trump has pleaded not guilty. With your former prosecutor's cap on, what do you make of how this has unfolded so far?

COMEY: I read the indictment and the accompanying statement of facts, and I don't know much more than that. I don't have a view on the merits because I don't know the facts. But I think this is wonderful in the sense that the American people can see how the rule of law works, especially in the case of a person who's tried to take a flamethrower to the rule of law in America.

KELLY: You have history with Donald Trump. You were his FBI director. He fired you in 2017, not yet four years into what was supposed to be a 10-year term as FBI director. Is that right?

COMEY: That's correct. Yep.

KELLY: I'll let people have that in their minds as I ask this next question. Can Trump get a fair trial in New York, in your view? - because he says he can't, that New York is politically biased against him.

COMEY: Oh, he can. And I think at least the accounts that I've read of the civil trial involving E. Jean Carroll against Donald Trump show that he can. But a jury was selected in that case that included one person in particular, as I call, who was a regular follower of right-wing media on radio and a lot of people who hadn't followed the news. Yes, he can get a fair trial. Now, of course, he'll take a flamethrower to it.

KELLY: He would argue that that E. Jean Carroll decision showed that the opposite is true since he was found liable. But go on.

COMEY: Yeah. I mean, he'll have set it up that any result would be unjust. And so you have to just push that noise to the side and look at the kind of jurors who are on a case like that, the kind of evidence they saw and the verdict that they returned in that civil case. They didn't find him liable for the top civil allegation, which was a forcible sexual assault, a rape, and found him liable for the lesser charges. So how is that a runaway jury that can't give Donald Trump a fair trial? That's nonsense.

KELLY: I'm remembering you've been on the show before. You came...

COMEY: Yep.

KELLY: ...And spoke to my colleague Ailsa Chang about your last book. And you told her the best thing that could happen to Donald Trump would be for him to be ignored, to be standing on the front lawn at Mar-a-Lago in his bathrobe, shouting at passing cars. Do you stand by that?

COMEY: Well, yeah. At that point, I didn't know that if he was in his bathrobe, he may have top-secret, sensitive, compartmented information stuffed in the belt of his robe. And so his behavior has made it very difficult for that to be a reality. And I think it's important that the Justice Department and local prosecutors hold him accountable for what he's done. So I think Donald Trump has made it that we can't leave him on the front lawn in his bathrobe yelling at cars.

KELLY: James Comey. He is former director of the FBI and now crime novelist. His debut novel is "Central Park West." Jim Comey, it was a pleasure. Thank you.

COMEY: Thanks, Mary Louise - good to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK KINGSWELL SONG, "HOMESICK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.