Saturday 22 September 2018

Nods to classic thrillers make for near-perfect debut

Thriller: The Woman in the Window, AJ Finn, HarperCollins, ­hardback, 427 pages, €15.49

In disguise: Daniel Mallory goes by the name AJ Finn
In disguise: Daniel Mallory goes by the name AJ Finn

Meadhbh McGrath

In the last decade, women writers have come to dominate crime fiction, a genre traditionally associated with men. A report last summer revealed that the popularity of titles like Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train had prompted male authors to use gender-obscuring pseudonyms in a bid to appeal to the largely female thriller audience.

Dan Mallory, a long-time crime fiction editor, is the latest to disguise his gender, selecting the ambiguous pen name 'AJ Finn'. And publishers are keen to sell his riveting debut, The Woman in the Window, as this year's Gone Girl, with the cover bearing a rapturous endorsement from that juggernaut's author.

It seems to be working: the film rights were snapped up before it was published, and it is due to be published in 38 countries - the most of any debut novelist.

Like The Girl on the Train, The Woman in the Window provides a narrator who believes she has witnessed a crime, but is hazy on the details - she's an alcoholic and was drunk on wine and high on prescription painkillers at the time.

Here, the woman is Anna Fox, a 38-year-old former child psychologist who lives alone in a lavishly restored New York townhouse. Rendered agoraphobic by post-traumatic stress disorder following a mysterious tragic incident, she spends her days peering out her windows and drinking Merlot by the bottle. In the evenings, she rewatches old Hitchcock thrillers with her cat Punch.

Her husband has left, taking their eight-year-old daughter with him. In the basement, she has a handsome yet suspect lodger who keeps to himself, leaving Anna mostly alone with her wine, her cat and her camera, spying on her new neighbours, the Russells: the intimidating Alistair, tough-talking Jane and their timid teenage son Ethan.

The novel leans heavily on classic suspense films, and there's great fun to be had identifying each reference, even if it makes the story a touch predictable. Rear Window is the obvious one, but as Anna watches Gaslight, you're figuring out who is making her think she's crazy, like Ingrid Bergman's character in the film, or trying to spot Vertigo's blonde doppelgängers in Anna's Harlem neighbourhood.

Aside from the central mystery, there's also the matter of Anna's unexplained agoraphobia, and Mallory's handling of her interior life ends up being much stronger than the murder plot (the denouement of which, unfortunately, ends up being a bit of a let down).

Even if you've already guessed the reveal, the source of Anna's trauma proves to be a fantastically chilling horror story in its own right.

The book is accompanied by a note from the author, in which Mallory writes about his years-long struggle with depression and bipolar disorder, and describes his desire to "smuggle those lows into the audience's heads by folding them into a fast-moving plot". He's certainly done that, and done it well - Mallory is clearly well-versed in the classic thriller formula, and his plot, filled with clever twists, is almost perfectly executed. The Woman in the Window makes for truly unputdownable, very enjoyable reading.

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