Published in the Sunday Times
By Michele Magwood
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
- The Woman in the Window by A.J. Flynn
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