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.