In suspense fiction, as in life, things aren’t always as they appear. We view events through similar, although by no means identical, lenses. And therein lies the fun, both between the covers of The Woman in the Window, the new year’s most audacious psychological suspense debut, and in the intriguing, real-life turn of the table by its pseudonymous author, A.J. Finn.
As The Woman in the Window opens, we meet Dr. Anna Fox, a New York child psychologist turned thoroughly modern mess following her unexplained separation from her husband and daughter 11 months prior. Now an agoraphobic, voyeuristic shut-in, Anna whiles away the days within her Manhattan brownstone, wineglass in hand, monitoring her park-side neighbors through her digital camera, binge-watching classic movies (Rear Window, anyone?) and counseling other agoraphobics online.
Then Anna observes and reports to police a shocking act of violence at the residence of a new neighbor. Did she imagine it? Can police (and the reader) trust her interpretation of the event? Suffice to say, the plot twists that follow blow the roof off her carefully insulated world.
While fans of Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and Alfred Hitchcock’s films will feel right at home in Anna’s wine-addled reality, the unusual backstory behind its provenance bears a touch of suspense fiction as well.
A.J. Finn is actually Dan Mallory, a 38-year-old senior vice president and editor for William Morrow who studied literature,* inspired by his love of Agatha Christie, Ruth Ware and his dissertation subject, Patricia Highsmith. Like many in publishing, Mallory admits he’d fantasized about tasting life on the other side of the editing desk. Unfortunately, timing was an issue.
“It was a flicker in my mind for some time—this idea that I could write something—but [it wasn’t something] that I pursued with any intent whatsoever,” Mallory says by phone from his Manhattan office. “I never wrote so much as a poem as an adult, in part because, for the longest time—probably since 1988 when The Silence of the Lambs was published—the market was dominated by serial killer thrillers by the likes of Thomas Harris, James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell. I enjoyed the serial killer thriller as much as the next reader; I just didn’t have one in me.”
That changed dramatically in 2012 with the publication of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which ushered in a new era of psychological suspense. "This was the sort of book that I had read and studied, that I might try to write,” Mallory says. “It was only after the market seemed propitious and readers demonstrated an appetite for this sort of literature that I thought to myself, right—if I come up with a story, perhaps now is the time to strike. And lo and behold, this character strolled into my head, dragging her story behind her.”
As Anna made herself at home, Mallory found her overactive, incessantly introspective mind to be a “comfortable fit.” Like Anna, the author has struggled with severe depression, and explains that Anna’s experience with agoraphobia closely matches his own. “Since I wrote the book, I’ve been in a much better place psychologically than I was for over a decade,” Mallory says. “At the same time, I developed a pretty keen sense of empathy. That’s the silver lining of depression, or at least it was in my case. So I felt for this character.”
“‘Is this really plausible? Wouldn’t people shut their blinds?’ NO! No one in New York shuts their blinds!”
As easy as it was to channel Anna, Mallory also effortlessly accessed the inner voyeur of his readers.
“I wrote the book in my flat in Chelsea, and my desk is right beside the window in my living room. Across the street is a pair of beautiful brownstones, and the windows are never shuttered, the curtains never drawn,” he says. “A few readers, on finishing or even getting a couple chapters into the book, have said to me, ‘Is this really plausible? Wouldn’t people shut their blinds?’ NO! No one in New York shuts their blinds!”
But why the pseudonym? This is where Mallory performed his own third-act twist.
“Because I work in publishing, I wanted to hedge my bets when it came time to submit the book,” he explains. “It would have been embarrassing for me had the book not been acquired, which was what I expected. But we submitted the book, and within 36 hours, we were fielding offers. At which point my agent and I said, ‘Right, it’s time for me to come clean and introduce myself as myself, so they know what they’re getting into.’ Happily, no one backed out.”
One thing’s for sure: The format of The Woman in the Window, with exactly 100 chapters, each no more than five or six pages, is a thriller editor’s dream.
“I don’t know that I consciously tapped into much of my [editorial] experience, but then I wouldn’t need to, would I? Because it’s built into me, it’s baked into me by this point!” Mallory chuckles. “Man, I love a short chapter. This is a technique that I admired in James Patterson’s work.”
Mallory’s success with his debut thriller, which sold in September for a rumored seven figures and will be marketed in 38 territories, may have set a record for a newcomer. Having successfully jumped the table from editor to author, Mallory bid farewell to William Morrow in December to craft his next psychological thriller, set in San Francisco.
Until then, we’ll start closing our blinds.
*The original version of this interview stated that Mallory obtained a doctorate at Oxford. A February 2019 article in the New Yorker revealed that this was not true and alleged that several other aspects of Mallory's biography had been falsified.