Channelling Hitchcock - ‘Women are three dimensional and flawed, just like men’
‘The Woman in the Window’ is set to be the blockbuster thriller of the year, nodding to suspense classics old and new. Its author tells Celia Walden he ‘often thinks like a woman’
Daniel Mallory was in the LAX lounge on his way back from a break in Palm Springs when his agent rang and said: "We've been resisting Hollywood because we wanted to close the publishing deal first, but Fox have extended an offer of a million dollars for the book - do you want it?"
For any novelist, let alone a first-timer, this is the dream question, and the 38-year-old author of The Woman in the Window - a thriller which has been dubbed the new Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train - is still visibly exhilarated by the memory.
"I managed, 'I want that, yes', and then desperately wanted to tell someone, but I was travelling alone and the only people nearby were this Japanese couple with a small child who didn't seem to speak any English." Mallory turned to the family, smiled and gave them the thumbs up. "And all three turned back to me and did the same," he chuckles. "They never call, they never write, but it was a lovely moment. And by the end of that week the book auction had reached $2m for two books."
I open my mouth to congratulate the former publishing executive who wrote this year's biggest literary sensation in 12 months, in secret and under the pseudonym, AJ Finn, but "I hate you" comes out instead. Which is embarrassing and a little unfair given Mallory's wit and charm, given his John Krasinki meets Ryan Reynolds all-American handsomeness, sitcom star smile and the fact that he made the five-floor trip down to greet me in his London hotel's reception rather than having me 'sent up'.
Although, of course, it's not despite, but because of all this, and the millions, and the Gillian Flynn comparisons, and the 38 territories The Woman in the Window has already been sold to worldwide (a record for any debut novelist) that I hate Mallory.
And you can try and sneer off the psychological thriller as populist or derivative if it makes you feel any better, but the bottom line is that Mallory's a fine writer and an ingenious plot man. Which is why, no doubt, his debut immediately became an instant New York Times bestseller - a success he is sure to repeat when his novel is published here this week.
You'd have to be ingenious to give a 90,000 word story basically set within the same four walls more plot twists than a silly straw. But the tale of an agoraphobic child psychologist who believes she has witnessed a vicious crime in a neighbouring Harlem townhouse through her kitchen window, is that most lucrative and least grammatical of things: unputdownable.
As the Oxford-educated eldest son of Wall Street banker John and mother Pamela, this former senior editor at top US publisher, William Morrow - who has represented the likes of Karin Slaughter, Peter Robinson, Val McDermid and Nicci French over the years - makes success look easy.
When he outed himself as AJ Finn - a deliberately gender-neutral nom de plume he took on partly "because up until December I was still working and I didn't want my authors to see their editor's name scrawled across a hardback in the bookshop", partly "because I'm a private person" - it was the 'poacher turned gamekeeper' pieces that annoyed him the most. "Because no book is sure-fire and, far from being easy, this was a labour of love. "So these journalists intent on suggesting, or even asserting, that I know the secret ingredients needed to cook up a bestseller are wrong. There is no secret sauce. If there were, I would have written a huge bestseller long ago."
Thirty years steeped in his own genre at work and at home won't exactly have been a hindrance, says Mallory. "I grew up devouring Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes and, as a teenager, I got into psychological suspense, Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell." Around the same time he developed an obsession with Hitchcock and film noir and went on to study mystery and suspense fiction at New College, Oxford.
The Woman in the Window is Rear Window reimagined for our times. "A culmination of all those experiences, synthesised with my own mental health issues, which were not easy to live with," Mallory says.
For 15 years prior to writing the book, Mallory had struggled with such severe depression that like his heroine, Dr Anna Fox, he was often unable to prise himself from the bed, let alone the house, for weeks or months at a time. "I wouldn't talk to anyone except the cashier at the local Mexican takeaway for extended periods and when you feel that low, it's logical to contemplate some sort of release.
"I never attempted suicide but when you find yourself considering death, or indeed longing for it, you know that there is some sort of serious system glitch within you." It wasn't until the summer of 2015 that he was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder and given the correct medication. It "unlocked" something in his brain, he says, "and about a week after starting my new drugs, I started writing".
Putting himself into the head of a woman "came naturally" to Mallory, who has two sisters and suspects he "often thinks like a woman". After what he'd been through, it wasn't hard to imagine the isolation of a depressive agoraphobic, either. And the empathy the author feels for his Merlot-swilling, pill-popping unreliable narrator gives the book more depth than your average crime thriller.
But doesn't it seem funny - in this era of female empowerment - how much we relish a frumpy wine-glugging mess of an anti-heroine?
"I think it's a reaction to Disney princesses. I really do. Because women are three dimensional and flawed, just like men. And yes, Anna is a mess, but she's not a damsel in distress. So often in novels we're still being presented with these damsels in distress, waiting to be saved by men, when most of the women I know are more than a match for the men in their lives. So men don't own strength and there are some slobby females out there."
Ask Mallory which strong, slobby A-lister he'd like to play Anna in the Fox film version - currently in development and being produced by Oscar winner Scott Rudin - and he won't say ("I know that if I name six actresses I'd love, they'll cast the seventh"), but he will definitely be demanding a cameo role.
"Slightly tricky since she scarcely leaves the house. But I could be a pharmacy delivery guy, right? Dropping off her pills…" Before any of that happens, however, he needs to finish book two, which was due two weeks ago and is "another psychological thriller, set in San Francisco, with another female protagonist. And actually, you'll like this: she's pretty well adjusted. Fancy that? Because, well, I don't want to be that author who only writes about frumps and messes, you know?"
Not really. I, for one, would take as many frumps and messes as AJ Finn could throw at me.
The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn (€15.99, HarperCollins) is out now.