High Anxiety

By Kurt Wenzel
A.J. Finn, better known hereabouts as Daniel Mallory

“The Woman in the Window”
A.J. Finn
William Morrow, $26.99

It was the great publishing story of last year. Daniel Mallory, a book editor at Morrow, was spending his nights and weekends working on a novel of his own. He started with a 7,500-word outline and after 12 months emerged with a psychological thriller called “The Woman in the Window.” 

But would it get published, fretted Mr. Mallory. I guess you could say things turned out okay. Employing the pseudonym A.J. Finn, “The Woman in the Window” garnered a two-book, $2 million advance, 37 international publishers, and a film deal from Fox 2000. It hit The New York Times best-seller list its first week of release. 

Note to publisher William Morrow: Mr. Mallory is not expected at next week’s editorial meeting.

Reading “The Woman in the Window,” you can see the excitement that publishers must have felt upon viewing it. Mr. “Finn’s” twisty noir reads very much like a movie, with its clipped dialogue and rat-a-tat prose that imitates the expository writing in a movie script: “I drop the phone and race to the basement door, yell his name, yell it, yell it. Seize the doorknob, pull hard.”

In fact, the very premise on which the novel is based is, er, “appropriated” from Hitchcock’s classic film “Rear Window.” Instead of Jimmy Stewart bound to a wheelchair, we have Anna Fox, an emotionally damaged agoraphobe who is shut like a prisoner inside her Harlem townhouse. She’s spends her days mixing pharmaceuticals with merlot, gorging herself on DVDs of classic thrillers, and gazing out her window. It’s the latter, as one can guess, that gets Anna into trouble. Nosy Parkers, as they used to be known, do not fare well in the annals of noir. 

While “The Woman in the Window” moves swiftly and is often a lot of fun, readers should be warned that in order to buy in they’ll need to put down their thinking caps — if not turn them completely inside out. To solve the problem of having a heroine who is homebound, for example, Mr. Finn creates a contemporary New York where neighbors spontaneously drop in on each other’s apartments to introduce themselves, only to get drunk and confess all in their very first meeting (as a woman named Jane Russell does with Anna early on in this novel).

In a another glaring plot convenience, a young man named Ethan also knocks on Anna’s door and ends up spending inordinate amounts of time with her, as if teenage boys would be permitted (or would want) to hang out at the reclusive single woman’s apartment across the street. 

More pointedly, in this alternative Harlem, people live their lives with their blinds continually open, lights blaring, as a kind of proscenium into their lives; and when they murder, they do it directly in sight of these broadly lighted windows, even after one of their neighbors (Anna) has already been outed as an obsessive voyeur. 

As for Mr. Finn’s prose, the legacy of Melville and Faulkner is intact. “My heart is going wild, like a trapped fly.” Metaphors often hit the ear with a clang, and while his clipped, indented sentences are ready-made for readers weaned on memes and Twitter feeds, others may feel they’re being cynically underestimated.

    A curve of fair skin.
    An eye, closed, running vertical, edged with a frill of lashes.
    It’s someone on their side. I’m looking at a sleeping face.
    I’m looking at
my sleeping face. 

Of course most readers of Mr. Finn’s novel will not overly concern themselves with his prose. They are looking for suspense, which “The Woman in the Window” indeed delivers. The entire narrative has a genuinely creepy vibe, mostly due to the author’s expert portrayal of Anna’s adverse psychological state. And when the plot twists finally land, they arrive like the literary equivalent of atom bombs. I would dare even the most seasoned reader of noir to see these twists coming, and they not only spin the novel in a completely different direction, but also shake up the reader’s sense of human psychology; they are truly disturbing. 

But whatever momentum Mr. Finn builds in the novel’s middle is quickly mitigated by the finale — lifted from ten thousand movies past. The old “extended terrorizing” by the villain, followed by the old “rooftop mano a mano.” You won’t need to guess who’s going through the skylight. 

No doubt “The Woman in the Window” has already been gobbled up by countless readers. Its undemanding writing and twisty turns are perfect fodder for the beach or trans-Atlantic flights. The question for more sophisticated readers, though, will be this: During a time when the thriller genre is going through a literary renaissance, spearheaded by writers with the skill of a Tana French, for example, is their time better spent elsewhere? 

The movie version of “The Woman in the Window” will be in theaters next year. 

Kurt Wenzel is the author of “Lit Life,” among other novels. He lives in Springs.

Daniel Mallory (A.J. Finn) has spent summers here for many years. His parents live in Amagansett, where, on Aug. 11, he’ll be at the East Hampton Library’s Authors Night benefit.