Photograph by Brad Bridgers

His first four novels didn't garner Sean Doolittle much mainstream attention, but they did earn him a devoted cult following, comparisons to Elmore Leonard, and the admiration of Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. His latest, Safer (Delacorte, $24), chronicles the nightmarish ordeal of Paul, the new guy in an Iowa suburb who is falsely accused of molesting a 13-year-old neighbor girl, and his confrontation with the retired cop across the street. Here, Doolittle talks about his hardcover debut, crime fiction, and why he's drawn to heroes who are a lot like him. Timothy Hodler

Q: Safer features an unusual antagonist—kind of a John Walsh figure. What attracted you to the idea?

A: I was talking to a friend a few years ago about what to do about Iraq. In his mind, it was obvious: These people want to hurt us, so we have to prevent that. Playing devil's advocate, I posed the question "Suppose that a paroled violent sex offender moved in next door. Would you murder your neighbor for the certainty that he would never hurt your daughters?" Reducing that global question to a neighborhood level provided compelling questions for me to play with.

Q: Paul is an interesting protagonist, too. As a lit professor, he's hardly your typical man of action.

A: I definitely favor stories where it's a normal guy caught up in things. I mean, sometimes you can run into problems with the normal guy. In any suspense novel, you have to be able to answer the question "Why don't these people just go home?" You know, call the police.

Q: Paul seems addicted to thrillers with omnicompetent heroes. Were you trying to make a statement?

A: I really enjoyed having the highbrow literary guy gobbling up those novels. If you're in trouble in a Jack Reacher novel, you call Jack Reacher. There's a symbolic sort of pining on Paul's part to just kick ass and fix it. But again, kicking ass doesn't always fix it.

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