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Hitchcock meets Harlem: Michele Magwood reviews AJ Finn's twisty and slick The Woman in the Window

Published in the Sunday Times

By Michele Magwood

The Woman in the Window

The Woman in the Window
AJ Finn, Harper Collins, R285

In the book world, success stories don’t get much better than this. Editor at leading publishing house writes a thriller under a pseudonym, a bidding auction breaks out on the synopsis alone and even before publication film rights are sold and foreign rights in dozens of countries. His own publishing house buys it for a cool two million – not realising it’s been written by the guy down the corridor – and the book is blurbed by supernovas Stephen King “Unputdownable!” and Gillian Flynn “Astounding.” It debuts at No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The Woman in the Window tells the story of Dr Anna Fox, once a respected child psychologist and now an agoraphobic, alcoholic shut-in. Her husband and eight-year-old daughter have left her and she drifts through the days drinking merlot and popping pills, watching the world outside her Harlem townhouse through the zoom lens of her camera. And then, one night, she witnesses – she’s damn sure she witnesses – a murder in an apartment opposite her. The victim is a woman Anna knows, but no one believes she ever met her, let alone saw her get stabbed to death. Crippled by addiction and mental illness, she must solve the mystery.

“Anna’s a mess,” says the author in an email interview. “Yet she owns her mess. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s self-aware.” Readers he meets find her relatable and intriguing, he says.

He deftly subverts the “male gaze” of so much crime fiction. “I was keen to create a female lead who isn’t passive, reactive or an obvious victim,” he writes, “and I wanted to describe her as a woman in the title – not a girl. With a few exceptions, including Gone Girl (a title that bristles with irony), these ‘girl’ books seem to condescend to women readers. Can you imagine if we referred to grown men as ‘boys’? Creepy.”

Daniel Mallory – AJ Finn – was working as a crime editor at William Morrow in New York. For 15 years he had grappled with debilitating depression which was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder. While adjusting to new medication he took some time off work and stayed at home, watching old movies. One day as Hitchcock’s Rear Window was playing, he noticed a woman in an apartment across the street. While Jimmy Stewart was spying on his neighbours on screen, so Mallory found himself watching the woman across the way. The idea for the novel came to him right there and then, and it took him just two days to write an outline.

There’s a delicious slippery Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith aspect to The Woman in the Window. Mallory was heavily influenced by Highsmith (The Talented Mr Ripley) when he studied her at Oxford, and he is a lifelong fan of Hitchcock’s films. “Highsmith’s work fascinates and disturbs me because it subverts the forms of detective fiction,” he says. “The Woman in the Window is not as subversive but it does reflect, I hope, Highsmith’s lean, succinct style, and her willingness to peer into the dark corners of the human mind.”

What this book does do, with great effect, is explore the darkness of depression and psychosis, something Mallory knows only too well. Thankfully his condition is now under control.

“What’s enormously gratifying is to meet and hear from my publishers and readers around the world, and also to have the chance to speak to audiences about mental health, a topic that’s too little discussed.”

Twisty and slick, and ever so clever, The Woman in the Window is a one-sitting read. @michelemagwood

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Programme for the 2018 Franschhoek Literary Festival announced!

The quaint Western Cape town of Franschhoek will be accommodating South Africa’s literary greats from Friday 18 May to Sunday 20 May.

This annual literary festival’s 2018 line-up includes discussions ranging from the André P Brink memorial wherein Elinor Sisulu will focus on the life and times of Ahmed Kathrada, with an introduction by Karina Szczurek (The Fifth Mrs Brink); a panel discussion on what feminism looks like in 2018, featuring discussants Mohale Mashigo (The Yearning), Jen Thorpe (Feminism Is), Helen Moffett (Feminism Is) and social commentator and public speaker Tshegofatso Senne; and Jacques Pauw (The President’s Keepers) and Jan-Jan Joubert (Who Will Rule in 2019?) deliberating whether there’s a ‘recipe’ for an ideal South African president with international relations scholar Oscar van Heerden.

And that’s just day one!

Find the full programme here.

The Fifth Mrs Brink

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The Yearning

Feminism Is

The President's Keeper

Who Will Rule in 2019?

And our sunshine noir author for March is ... Michael Niemann!

A new month calls for a new sunshine noir author sending shivers down the spines of local thriller fans…

This month, the co-author of the popular Detective Kubu series, Michael Sears, had the opportunity to interview Michael Niemann for The Big Thrill – the magazine for international thriller writers.

Michael Niemann, author of Illegal Holdings. ©The Big Thrill.

Here’s what the two thriller aficionados chatted about:

For more than 30 years, Michael Niemann has been interested “in the sites where ordinary people’s lives and global processes intersect,” and he has traveled and written widely about Africa and Europe as part of his academic work in international studies. Along the way, he has helped students of all ages and backgrounds to understand their role in constructing the world in which they live and to take this role seriously.

So it may seem strange that Michael turned to writing thrillers, but his experiences – particularly in Africa – inform his work and lend a richness to his characters.

His debut novel, Legitimate Business, first published in 2014 and reissued last year, featured Valentin Vermeulen, an investigator for the UN. It’s set against the sandy hopelessness of Zam Zam camp in Darfur. The sequel, Illicit Trade, also released last year, addressed human trafficking from Kenya. This month the third Vermeulen thriller, Illegal Holdings, comes out. It takes place in Mozambique against the backdrop of the vexed issue of land rights. Vermeulen is auditing a small aid agency, which has apparently misappropriated five million dollars, but the corruption goes much further than the missing money.

You are clearly familiar with Mozambique and understand its complex issues. What made you decide to set one of your novels there?

Mozambique was the second African country I ever visited. I spent time at the Centro de Estudos Africanos in Maputo, the capital, as part of my dissertation research. While there, I also had a chance to roam the city. Despite the poverty and deprivations of the civil war that was still going on, I met some of the most warm and generous people there. It’s also a country with a fascinating history. Before colonization, it was part of a vast Indian Ocean trading world. Colonization by the Portuguese was brutal and began earlier than elsewhere in southern Africa. Their first settlements there predate even the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in Cape Town. Its struggle for independence was led by Eduardo Mondlane, an assistant professor of anthropology from Syracuse University.

The second reason was the worrisome development of foreign land acquisitions on the African continent after the 2007/08 crash. Mozambique is one of the countries where biofuel companies, hedge funds and others have bought vast stretches of land. I thought that was a suitable topic for a thriller.

Vermeulen seems happiest when he is operating where “ordinary people’s lives and global processes intersect” and much less comfortable in the hierarchical structure of the UN in New York. Once he reaches a country, he tries to understand the people. Do you see a lot of yourself in him? (Hopefully you didn’t spend your career being shot at!)

Of course, his overall concerns are rather similar to mine, we both have a strong interest in justice. But I purposely chose a protagonist that was rather different from me – being shot at is only one of the crucial differences. The closest I ever was to bullets was my mandatory service in the German army. But Vermeulen’s MO is really more common sense. People don’t do things randomly, they do them because, at the time, the choices made sense in their context. So unraveling a mystery really means understanding people. That’s even more crucial when coming to a country and culture different from one’s own. Vermeulen has been in enough strange circumstances to realize that asking questions is the best starting point for an investigation. Any good investigator, police officer or private detective knows that.

Illegal Holdings features three strong female characters, Aisa, who is the director of a small NGO (Nossa Terra) concentrating on resettling people on the land; Isabel, the director of the Maputa branch of a big funder (Global Alternatives); and Tessa, Vermeulen’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. Was it part of the plan to juxtapose these very different women?

I wish I could claim so much plotting, but two of the female characters developed as the novel progressed. Tessa was a given since she’s a recurring character. Aisa Simango is a composite of the many strong women I have met during my work on the continent. For example, in 1999 I visited a number of human rights organizations in four southern African countries for a project documenting regional approaches to advance human rights protections. Every one of these was led by women who were in the forefront of the struggles to make lives better for their compatriots. Nossa Terra was inspired by the Union of Cooperatives, a female run organization that provided much of the food for Maputo during the civil war.

Isabel LaFleur really popped into my head as I began fleshing out the staffing of Global Alternatives. There is a general presumption that people working in development aid are compassionate individuals. So I asked, “What if that person is a blatant careerist?” She is a strong character, but only in the sense of looking out for herself.

Continue reading their conversation here.

Legitimate Business

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Illicit Trade

Illegal Holdings

Book Bites: 4 March

Published in the Sunday Times

Head Case
Ross Armstrong, HarperCollins, R285

“‘Pre-bullet’ I was directionless. ‘Post-bullet’ I had a lust for the world.”So says trainee community support officer (a nonofficial rank on the bottom rung of Britain’s bobby brigade) Tom Mondrian after being shot in the head. The shards of metal lodged in Tom’s brain make some things difficult for him, most notably walking, reading and recognising faces, but in its subtle rearrangement of his grey matter the bullet also turns the former apathetic loser into a driven workaholic with heightened senses (he can smell carbon monoxide) and preternaturally sharp instincts. If Arthur Conan Doyle and Nick Hornby collaborated on a book, it would probably turn out something like Head Case. Tom is an endearing and often very funny narrator, but can we trust a man with a severely altered brain to solve a crime involving abducted girls when he can’t control his own impulses or even remember what his partner looks like? Wait and see. Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

The Maid’s Room
Fiona Mitchell, Hodder & Stoughton, R295

“There are more than 200000 foreign domestic workers in Singapore. The majority of them are from the Philippines and Indonesia,” notes Tala, the anonymous writer of the blog Maidhacker. She and her sister Dolly work abroad to send money home to their children. Dolly tries to toe the line, and Tala tries to fight back against the systematic abuses foreign domestics suffer. But is Tala’s blog putting herself and the women she champions in danger? Award-winning journalist Mitchell has researched the subject in depth, creating a page-turner that does not succumb to the “white-saviour” narrative. Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

The Bedlam Stacks
Natasha Pulley, Bloomsbury Circus, R305

Injured explorer Merrick Tremayne is spending his days in a rundown greenhouse facing an uncertain future when he is offered a chance at another adventure. His mission is to go into an unmapped area of Peru in search of quinine to fuel the British Empire. He travels through a fantastical landscape, finding a life he could not have imagined. Everything slips quietly into place, like clockwork. If you loved her first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and are worried her second can’t live up to it, don’t worry, it does. Jem Glendinning @jemathome

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A jealous ex-wife, a skittish bride-to-be, and many, many twists - Jennifer Platt reviews The Wife Between Us

Published in the Sunday Times

The Wife Between Us
Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, Macmillan, R285

There’s something fun and soapy about the new wave of domestic thrillers – or, actually, they’re more telenovela-like.

They have such an unrealistic glamorous feel and improbable storylines to feed the insatiable thriller market, those who have gobbled up the Girls books – Gone Girl, Girl on a Train etc – and want more.

More drama, more angst, more guessing games.

These feature impossibly beautiful and fragile yet strong women who could be mentally unstable or not, a rich, handsome, dapper man with piercing eyes who could be bad or not, a marriage that has many secrets – old family skeletons, murder, abuse … and the twists, yoh, they just keep on coming.

Set in New York, The Wife Between Us is one such roller-coaster ride. Vanessa now lives in a trendy flat with her aunt after she and her husband Richard have divorced. She is the jealous ex-wife, seemingly stalking his new fiancée. She wants to do everything to stop the wedding from happening.

Nellie, Richard’s fiancée, is suitably skittish. There are no-caller ID phone calls, her wedding photographer is inexplicably cancelled, and Richard is quite demanding. So demanding that her best friend, Sam, is worried that he might not be the Prince Charming that Nellie thinks he is. But Nellie is smitten and will do anything for Richard.

It’s clever and addictive reading but be prepared for over-the-top machinations. There’s already a twist in the first third of the book. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Claire Robertson’s third novel is an absorbing, eloquent story that lingers, writes Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times

Under Glass ****
Claire Robertson, Umuzi, R270

At the centre of this story – its very pistil, the author might say – is a secret. A secret wrapped in an enigma and obscured, frustratingly, from our view. “You enter an honourable pact with the reader,” observes Claire Robertson. “You can misdirect them but you may not mislead them. You can’t lie but you can suggest other theories about what is going on. I so enjoyed it – felt this sort of glee writing it.”

Under Glass is Robertson’s third, eagerly awaited, novel. Her first, The Spiral House, won both the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and a South African Literary Award. She followed it up two years later with the splendid The Magistrate of Gower, which narrowly missed out on another Sunday Times award.

She started writing fiction relatively late in her career as a journalist, yet her sui generis style sprang fully formed onto the page: subtle, precise, fine-grained.

Robertson’s historical settings have moved from the Cape to the Free State and now, in Under Glass, to the colony of Natal.

It is 1857 in the makeshift settlement of D’Urban. Mrs Chetwyn, a resolute young wife, has arrived with her small daughter and her Indian ayah after a testing sea journey. They are to meet up with her husband Captain Chetwyn, who has been on safari, searching for suitable land to establish a sugar estate.

The money for the estate has been staked by his father back in England and carries with it a strict stipulation that will shape the destiny of the whole family.

“The book is about the steps Mrs Chetwyn takes to secure her family’s future,” says Robertson, “the way she tests the limits of her power and breaches those limits.”

One of the overarching themes of the novel is that of genesis and fecundity: of planting and reaping crops for the mother country, and of settler women reproducing, their bodies relied upon for the peopling of the colony.

Mrs Chetwyn meets an eccentric botanist, McQuarie, with hair “of such dark ruddiness as to seem bloody”. His hands hang at his sides, she writes, “putting Mrs Chetwyn in mind of a spade and fork on the walls of a shed, inert, yet somehow holding the sense of work as they hang there”. She becomes enthralled with botany and cultivation and forms a strong bond with him that will change the story dramatically.

Robertson is a demanding writer, in that you cannot read her quickly or casually. She has a taut, oblique style and weighs every word, creating memorable images of startling clarity such as this description of visiting suitors: “On they come in their elliptic collars and tethered studs, their bloodstone-buttoned vests. They come in pairs for courage and the sport of it, or singly and, on finding other fellows already there, light cigars to smoke them out.”

Her descriptions of the straits of settling a new land are vivid: mattresses made of seaweed, tinned butter, ticks and flies and snakes and the “prickly heat sprinkled with flour until she is a crusty, sour mess”.

The Zulu worker Fuze makes this observation about the colonists: “The popular idiom is that they are birds, but they are like cats … smacked on the nose, they freeze and wait and creep back. They do exactly as they please and stubbornly stay, beyond the limits of good sense.”

Underpinning the story is the question of land, and ownership. “I was very aware of what’s going on in South Africa now,” says Robertson. “Aware of this great drumbeat of injustice, of the great decisions that were taken so carelessly, and of people like myself and my children who have to work out their feelings of legitimacy as inheritors of something they recognise as a crime. Colonialism and Empire – how do you resolve those things?”

Under Glass – the title refers to the enormous glass cases that transported plants to and from Africa, and to the hothouses that the colonies were – lacks the emotional heft of both The Spiral House and The Magistrate of Gower, but it is an absorbing, eloquent story that lingers long after you have closed the book. @MicheleMagwood

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