The Woman in the Window
By A.J. Finn, William Morrow, 427 pages, $26.99
The rocket fuel propelling The Woman in the Window, the first stratosphere-ready mystery of 2018, is expertise. Its author is billed as A.J. Finn, perhaps to leave open the possibility in readers’ minds that this entry in the Gone Girl/The Girl on the Train sweepstakes was written by a woman, as most have been.
But its author is Dan Mallory, a longtime editor of mystery fiction. He is well versed in the tricks of the trade; he credits James Patterson as a helpful influence, particularly when it comes to short chapters. Mallory has edited recent Agatha Christie novels, but Christie never wrote an action scene packed with special effects just right for the movie version.
Mallory also clearly knows a lot about the more diabolical elements in Hitchcock movies. And he hasn’t been shy, as Finn, about plugging them into his plot. The Woman in the Window starts out with a Rear Window setup: Anna Fox spies on her neighbours, looking from her gentrified Harlem town house into theirs. She is housebound (agoraphobia) but thinks she witnesses a crime. And now for a dose of The Girl on the Train: Anna is a whopping drunk who also takes many prescription drugs, none of which should be mixed with alcohol.
All of this is very familiar, to the point where The Woman in the Window starts off feeling ordinary. It reads too much like another knockoff while the author sets up his very basic story elements. (At heart, this is a locked-room mystery in the great Christie tradition.) We need a rundown of who the neighbours are, especially the Russells, the family Anna spies on most avidly. We need to know about Anna’s past life as a child psychiatrist, and about the husband and daughter who have abandoned her in the house. We need to raise eyebrows about the terse, hunky tenant in the basement.
We don’t need a lot of flaunting of the author’s cineaste credentials, but we get it anyway. This will work better later, when the book intercuts movie dialogue from the DVDs Anna watches with what is actually happening in her real world. There are shades of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, Spellbound, Suspicion and, of course, George Cukor’s Gaslight, which has an enormous influence on the whole book (and has influenced many of its predecessors). But despite the value of “show, don’t tell” for any writer, this author loves using examples to a fault. At one point, after Anna has dutifully invoked Gaslight, the book also throws in: “Because it was no dream. (‘This is no dream! This is really happening!’ — Mia Farrow, ’Rosemary’s Baby.’)”
Once the book gets going, it excels at planting misconceptions everywhere. You cannot trust anything you read. Even Anna can be made to doubt her own actions and memories, and she has absolutely no allies. Everyone on the street thinks she is peculiar, and that’s the best-case scenario. When she deals with the police — an inevitable interaction in this genre — they happen to notice that she has stockpiled enough wine and prescription drugs to sedate an army. There’s no chance they will ever believe anything she says as the danger level rises.
A book that’s as devious as this novel will delight anyone who’s been disappointed too often. (Case in point: those who were hooked by Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train but then suffered through her Into the Water.)
And The Woman in the Window sneaks in its zenith of trickery into an effortless early scene. Anna makes a disastrous effort to go beyond her front door and meets someone she’s eager to know. The two of them spend a wonderful, confessional evening back in the house, playing chess and getting loaded. This all goes down so smoothly that its consequences come as a complete shock. And there’s a superb snowbound horror story buried deep inside this novel’s many layers.
How well does it all hold up, once Finn’s cards have been fully played? Pretty well, but there are problems. An enormous surprise meant to arrive more than two-thirds of the way through the book was guessable even by me — a terrible guesser — almost from the start. One character has huge credibility problems. And the writing is serviceable, sometimes bordering on strange. “My robe is smeared across the floor like a skid mark” offers Anna, as well as “thoughts tumble-drying in my brain.” She really does need to get out of the house more, if only to shake off those domestic turns of phrase.
For hard-core aficionados of classic logical mysteries, this book includes some special delights. Its nods to contemporary tastes are offset by things like a reference to The Thinking Machine, the nickname of Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, a fictional amateur detective created by Jacques Futrelle. Van Dusen was beloved in his time, but that time was so long ago that Futrelle died on the Titanic. Finn knows commerce but he also knows the classics, old and new. He truly aspires to write in their tradition.