The Most Gripping Thing I've Read in Years

It’s not a book in my preferred mystery/thriller genre, not a book at all, or even short story, but this New Yorker article, about the best-selling author of the mystery/thriller The Woman in the Window. The article is a very long read—12,000 words—but I scarfed it down in one sitting, even though I’d laid down for a much needed nap. Within minutes I was wide awake.

The writer of the piece Ian Parker did such a masterful job telling this convoluted story that I hesitate to step on his version. In a nutshell: Dan Mallory was a top editor at William Morrow. He got a 2 million-dollar deal with said publisher, writing under the pseudonym A. J. Finn.  Woman in the Window debuted at Number One on the NYT Bestseller list, a rarity for fiction, and will some be a major motion picture.

Mr. Mallory is a bit of a liar. We’re not talking a little run-of-the-mill resume padding, though he has claimed to have two doctorates when he has none. His thing seems to be making up horrendous things to garner sympathy. Like his mother dying of cancer and a brother who’s committed suicide. It turns out they’re both alive and well. Dan claimed to have cancer and forged a series of emails in his brother’s name detailing spinal surgery. There was no cancer and no surgery. He doesn’t seem to have broken any laws, but his behavior is gross, and given his success, inexplicable.

Caught in these lies, he now claims he told them to hide the shame of suffering from bipolar disorder. Psychiatrists aren’t buying it. Elaborate lies aren’t symptoms of bipolar, and his claim threatens to stigmatize an already vulnerable population.

What Dan seems to suffer from is psychopathy, the conman’s disease. So where’s the interest in that, compared to the story that’s obsessed media for three years—the serial liar and conman who runs the country?

What gives Mallory’s story legs is the way his real-life story bleeds into his fiction and that of other writers, and vice versa. He studied Patricia Highsmith in school, and it seems his work wasn’t entirely academic—he’s done a good job of living the character of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

And whatever malady the Talented Mr. Mallory suffers, it seems contagious. One of the writers he edited was Sophie Hannah, who’s been officially sanctioned to continue Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels. A recent one has a plot that’s remarkably close to Mr. Mallory’s supposed life, including the faking of terminal illness.

I’m reminded of Stephen King’s The Dark Half, in which a writer’s evil character escapes from a book into the real world. But that was the “real world” of fiction. Mallory’s blurring the line between fiction and the real real world.

Mallory’s story had me on the seesaw between repugnance and fascination, the same as any great horror story. And he’s infected me—I’d like to write a character like him into one of my books.

But right now, I face a dilemma. When I started the New Yorker article my first thought was that if Mallory’s book The Woman in the Window was a hit in my genre, I should read it. The more I found out about the author, the more he creeped me out. By the end of the article I vowed I wasn’t reading his book.

But then my agent told me, “You have to read it.” And I knew he was right. What if Mallory’s invented some secret thriller sauce? (Not that after a lifetime slaving at making art I believe in such shortcuts.) The Woman in the Window’s got raves on Amazon from Stephen King and Gillian Flynn, my favorite thriller writer. (Though those reviews consist of single words. Were they edited? By Mallory himself? The guy’s like a fog machine, blurring reality everywhere he goes.)

My dilemma is an old one—what do you do when you find out good artists are bad people? Do you boycott them? For me it comes down to a calculation of how good their work makes me feel versus how icky I feel consuming it. I continue to watch the TV series Ray Donovan even though two of the actors—Jon Voigt and Susan Sarandon—have political views I find repugnant. That’s is an easy call. Their politics have nothing to do with the show, and it doesn’t hurt that they both play villains.

My wife was a huge fan of both Bill Cosby and Lance Armstrong. She was devastated by their respective falls, and can’t bear to see either one of them anymore. That’s another easy call. Cosby’s crimes against women will forever make lovable Cliff Huxtable unlovable, and Armstrong’s doping cut to a core issue in the enjoyment of any sport—that of fairness.

Edgar Allen Poe was a human train wreck, a guy you’d never want to hang with, unless you had an even stronger taste for absinthe than I do. But his flaws go to heart of his dark work in a positive sense. They make it even more enjoyable. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s been dead for almost 200 years.)

A year after Bob Dylan’s greatest album Blonde on Blonde he appeared in the documentary Don’t Look Back as a total mean shithead. I struggled with this, but ultimately gave up. Blonde on Blonde is like air to me. It’s essential, and I still listen.

I’m not looking forward to The Woman in the Window. Reading it’s going to make me feel…dirty. It’s going to be hard to be objective. I’m sure not cutting this dude any slack. I just hope I don’t love it. That’s going to be tough.


Views: 92

Comment by Tom Cordle on February 12, 2019 at 8:54pm

This piece knocked for a loop, it is simply masterfully written. As for Mallory, assuming that's his real name, I know nothing about him or his work. But that a writer is screwed-up psychologically – well, that comes as no surprise. I'm afraid neuroses is the well-spring of art. I hope you aren't offended by my saying so, but this piece is so well-written that to engage in a bit of Machiavellian speculation, you, John Manchester could be an alter-ego of Dan Mallory, and this piece could certainly qualify as hyping the book

On another note, Poe was my first literary hero. I've written about him on Open Salon and elsewhere, not that my reverie has any effect on his reputation for good or ill. Whatever else one thinks of the man personally, he was a veritable wizard of the written word. That said, I haven't read him or much of any fiction in years; I find history far more compelling these days.

Comment by John Manchester on February 12, 2019 at 9:32pm

Tom -Thanks for the compliment, but the killer piece is the New Yorker one. (If I were secretly hyping anyone it would be that writer.)

I think Poe was my first literary hero, too, though I was only 12 and didn't have any idea what that meant. He invented the mystery and horror genres and contributed to the creation of science fiction. While drinking all that absinthe. I'd drink a lot more of it if I didn't know it's terrible for my health.

Comment by Maui Surfer on February 12, 2019 at 9:39pm

Cosby's early material was all at the expense of others, Fat Albert ... he just followed what were then the pathetic trends of making fun of others looks or doing things that were supposed to funny but weren't "we used to steal the wheels off of baby coaches, to make go-carts ..." yeah, fucking hilarious, a bunch of kids who now can't be taken for a walk in the park, while he and "Fat" Albert live it up on their stolen gains. Yuk yuk, think I'll drop this chick a roofie or two and then molest her.

Dylan's music is what it is, some like Bach and Beethoven, some like Woodie Guthrie, some Christian garbage. As he was and is decidedly unattractive he was known to hit on women with only the attraction of fame and money as a lure, then sulk when rejected. He could have stuck with another unattractive yet super talented woman and had a power couple with Joan Baez but instead was a typical asshole and tried all he could to score naive younger women. How do I know? He resides in Malibu, my second home, well, actually third after Papakōlea, where I observed it first hand.

Despite that, yes, I will still listen to Blonde on Blonde, and sometimes even Slow Train Coming for shits and giggles, Armageddon my ass ...

Comment by koshersalaami on February 13, 2019 at 8:16am

There’s two separate issues here. The first is the artist deliberately conning the public and getting an audience by lying to that audience. The second is the artist being personally repugnant. In Cosby’s case, a third issue, going beyond repugnant and into active evil. 

To expect our artists not to be personally repugnant is too high a standard. Follow that standard and we miss too much. We don’t consume art because artists are good or nice people. I know, “consume” is a funny word here, but a better one doesn’t come to mind. 

I would hesitate to line the pockets of a person who conned me deliberately. 

What’s unattractive about Joan Baez? I’ve seen her recently and for her age she looks outstanding. 

Comment by Anna Herrington on February 13, 2019 at 9:43am

So... this guy got a $2 million deal? Right there this reads like science fiction for these days offerings to authors. I don't know of this person, the top editor - had he written other books before or just his being top editor enough reason someone decided to give him such a crazy amount of cash for this book? - during the days of even consistent best seller authors having to work elsewhere to afford their writing habit...

I'd have a hard time reading anything that made me feel 'dirty,' but if the guy's a major liar and he was believed for any amount of time, then maybe he's the perfect author for fiction!

To answer your question, it depends. I appreciate Picasso's work but wouldn't want to know the guy, likely, but would I spend days reading a 'bad' guy's writing, even if the read is supposed to be fabulous? not so sure. Less likely if I already knew about the writer beforehand, probably. That would wreck it for me and promote an internal feeling I'm wasting my time buying into a creep's words/mind, maybe...that would also interfere with the enjoyment of reading.

If you do read, a review?

...and I'm with your wife on Lance Armstrong, mostly because my devoted cyclist husband believed in him for ages and I hated how crushed he was when even Lance turned out to be a con, too. Would've loved for his story to be authentic.

I read someone's theory that Poe wan't as much a heavy drinker as he had the syndrome often called 'Asian flush' that I also have, an intolerance to alcohol due to missing enzymes for processing it, so that one gets completely wasted off small amounts of drink. (Sometimes builds in a person over time, too, with certain genetic backgrounds like Italian and German, apparently.) No idea what is the truth about Poe on that - or where Poe was for those last missing days! I did spend a small while as child convinced I was his unknown descendant. We look alike. (Ha! No, we don't! just my humor creeping in...but I was quite sure for awhile.)

...and Joan Baez. (She's always had an elegant beauty, to me...)  I adored her and her music as a kid and still will tune in to her Diamonds and Rust tune about Dylan when wanting to listen to the best 'I loved you - and now here you are again but I have moved on' song.

Yes I loved you dearly 
And if you're offering me diamonds and rust 
I've already paid

Comment by Maui Surfer on February 13, 2019 at 10:45am

Wow, some Joan Baez fans here, myself included. Not sure if any of you saw her in person in the 60s, I did, and occasionally love me some folk music. The point was not to say she is ugly, the point was Dylan, a guy who is far from Brad Pitt, constantly hits on the Malibu beauties when he could have easily settled into a Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward relationship of magnificent talent for the ages, but instead tried to chase bunnies with Hef. His life, his choices, his kids, I've met them, don't think much of him. Malibu is a VERY small community and we all know each other. Ask Johnny, OS's current Malibu resident expert. Johnny, I miss the Snow Cones (shave ice) at the OLD Trancas Market.

Lets go back to Zuma Beach, I'll give you HALF of everything I own! ...


Comment by John Manchester on February 13, 2019 at 10:50am

Thanks for all the comments! Anna—now that you've mentioned it, I will have to review that damned book once I read it. (I'm stalling at the moment, reading something by someone who seems quite nice, and honest.) 

My wife adores Joan Baez. I'll confess I always found her voice a little pure and earnest for my taste. But as a person she seems like solid gold (though can you really tell???)

Comment by Tom Cordle on February 13, 2019 at 10:05pm

Anna  I'd never heard of Asian Flush, but that might explain the guy who used to work for me. I've seen him drink two beers and pass out on a bar. Poor guy got nailed for three DUI's, but I guess if you know you got a  problem with booze, you oughta stay away from it. Easy for me to say, who could down a half-dozen shots of scotch and still navigate.

As for the Dylan/Baez romance that wasn't so romantic, that's what I'd call Beauty and the Beast. My understanding is that she dumped him. I saw her live years ago at the Tampa Fairgrounds, and she sang like a bird, but without a lot of stage presence. I guess with that voice, she didn't need any.


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