How The Book of Lies Was Born

By Brad Meltzer

Every writer has a story they’ve been waiting their whole life to tell. This is mine. I know this because I first pitched The Book of Lies over a decade ago. When my first novel, The Tenth Justice, was published, my original pitch for the follow up was a story involving Cain. Exactly. Cain. As in, Cain and Abel. My editor at the time smartly told me: “You’ve just established yourself as a bestselling author of legal thrillers. Do you really want to risk it all by suddenly switching to kooky things like Cain?”

It was a moment I’ll never forget. I could be brave and do what I want. Or I could cave and keep the publisher happy.

I caved.

I was twenty-seven years old and barely had paid off my student loans. I caved in no time at all. In fact, I set the record for caving.

Skip forward a full decade. I’m at a Florida book signing for my last thriller, The Book of Fate, and I’m talking about my love of the character known as Superman and his creator, Jerry Siegel. Right then (and this only happens in Florida) an elderly woman stands up and shouts, “I know more about Superman and Jerry Siegel than you ever will!”

And I think to myself, “Lady, there’s no way you know more about Superman than I do.”

And then she says, “Sure I do. Jerry Siegel’s my uncle.”

Let me be clear here. I am not good at reading subtlety. I need giant cartoon hammers over my head. Lightning bolts from the sky. Volcanoes.

So I nod.

And then another guy IN THE SAME SIGNING raises his hand and says, “I served with Jerry Siegel in the army!”

Boom.

I had my idea.

Over the course of the next two years, this sweet relative of Jerry Siegel invites me into her family. I hear the stories of Superman’s creation. For the past 70 years, the public has been told that Superman was created by two teenagers in Cleveland. And that’s true. Action Comics was published in 1938. But what no one realizes is that Superman was actually created in 1932, just weeks after Jerry Siegel’s father was killed in a still unsolved robbery. So why did the world get Superman? Because a little boy named Jerry Siegel heard his father was murdered and, in grief, created a bulletproof man.

And why does no one know the story? Because Jerry Siegel never told anyone. In the thousands of interviews he gave throughout his life, where they asked him where he got the idea for Superman, Jerry never once mentions that his father was killed during a robbery. To this day, half the family was told it was a heart attack, while the other half says it was a murder. It makes perfect sense. When Superman was first introduced, he couldn’t fly. He jumped. He didn’t have heat or x-ray vision. All he was was strong—and bulletproof. The one thing young Jerry’s dad needed. And that’s why the world got Superman. Not because America is the greatest country on earth. But because a little boy lost his father.
The only hard part was, when I started to incorporate my thriller story into the Superman research, I had the world’s greatest hero, but something was still missing. And then, I remembered my original idea from ten years back. Cain. The man who brought murder into this world. And the world’s first villain.

Boom.

I had another idea.

In Chapter 4 of the Bible, Cain kills Abel. It is arguably the world’s most famous murder. But the Bible is silent about one key detail: the weapon that Cain used to kill his brother. In 1932, Mitchell Siegel was shot in the chest and killed. But the murder weapon from that murder is also lost to this day. So what do these two murders — thousands of years apart — possibly have to do with each other? That’s what I needed to find out.

To be clear, research isn’t magic. It’s just legwork. I spoke to Jerry Siegel’s family, as well as his widow and his daughter, who told me that in all the years that people have written about the Siegels, I’m the first one to actually call and speak with all of them. During the research, I went back and searched through the old newspapers from 1932 just to see what was going on when Jerry’s father was killed. You won’t believe what’s in there.

It was the same with Cain. According to most modern Bibles, Cain thinks God’s punishment is too much—‘My punishment is greater than I can bear’ is what the text says, which is why Cain is seen as such a remorseless monster. But when you go back to the original text—like in the geniza fragments from Cairo—that same passage can just as easily be translated as My sin is too great to forgive. See the difference there? In this version, Cain feels so awful…so sorry…for what he’s done to poor Abel, he tells God he should never be forgiven. That’s a pretty different view of Cain. Of course, most religions prefer the vicious-Cain. A little threat of evil is always the far better way to fill the seats. But sometimes the monsters aren’t who we think they are.

And slowly, the two worlds — my oldest saved story, and my newest one — began to collide. These stories — about Cain and Abel, about Superman — are not just folklore. They’re stories about us. Our heroes and villains tell us who we are. And sometimes we need to find the truth, even if it means revealing our own vulnerabilities.

Most important for me, the interesting part has never been the Superman story; the interesting part is Clark Kent — the idea that all of us, in all our ordinariness — can change the world.

But that still doesn’t mean I’m telling you what my characters really find inside The Book of Lies.

© Brad Meltzer