As mysteries go, you may know that I’m an “old soul.” The unfortunate side effect of this is that my relationship to modern crime novels is . . . er, problematic. I get especially angry when today’s writers create or seek comparisons with past greats. Only today, I picked up the latest Ruth Ware novel in a bookstore; once again, she is described as “the Agatha Christie of the modern world” or some such nonsense.
A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window came out back in January and immediately hit the best seller lists. This will come as no surprise to those of you aware of the fact – and this is hardly a secret – that “A.J. Finn” is the pseudonym for Dan Mallory, who for years has been an editor of mystery fiction at Harper Collins, the publishers of his book. He not only is a fan of Christie’s, he publishes her in the United States. (He also publishes Sophie Hannah, and if Mallory had anything to do with Hannah authoring her abysmal Poirot continuation series, we have a lot to talk about, him and me.)
Finn was inspired by the books he grew up reading, and now publishes, to write a mystery of his own. He also analyzed the market and made the pointed decision to cash in on the popularity of all those psychological thrillers with the word “Girl” or “Woman” in the title representing a narrator of questionable reliability. The book certainly falls within this category, but in fairness it also presents a more straightforward mystery – a sort of “whodunit – if anything was done in the first place!”
Upon its release, the book received great reviews. Janet Maslin of the New York Times said, “At heart, this is a locked room mystery in the great Christie tradition.”) Again, it will probably not surprise you that a. this book is not a locked room mystery, and b. Maslin’s statement makes no sense to a classic mystery reader, given that Christie’s oeuvre contains no more than a half dozen impossible crimes at most. Of course, if Maslin had written “in the great Dickson Carr tradition,” I imagine to my dismay that most of her readers would have have no idea who she was talking about. But say the name CHRISTIE and readers will buy!
To that, again, I say: SHEESH!
The Unreliably Narrated Psychological Thriller is an overworked category, but at least Finn creates a sympathetic one here: Dr. Anna Fox, a child psychologist, wife, and mother, who has lost her family and her job and now sits in her absolutely gorgeous five-story Harlem brownstone with a serious case of agoraphobia for which she takes copious amounts of pills for washes them down with bottles – literally, bottles – of wine every day. No wonder she’s unreliable! Over and over again, the few people left in her life – her psychiatrist, her physical therapist, her estranged husband Ed – question her to see if she is 1) taking her meds, and 2) abstaining from alcohol. Based on her consumption of both, I do not understand how she can stand up, let alone witness a possible murder.
Putting my glibness aside, though, Anna is a sympathetically drawn character, and if the mystery in this book consisted of why she is agoraphobic, I venture to say that it would be a better book. Because the reason is pretty devastating, and the unveiling of Anna’s truth is the best thing about this book.
The second best thing is that Anna likes to spend her time watching old movies, mostly noir and Hitchcock. Her taste is right up my alley, and she quotes from these films throughout the book. The problem is that the plots she is quoting from tend to show off the inferior, derivative nature of Finn’s suspense plot, the set-up of which is pretty much a rip-off of Rear Window: living vicariously through her camera with the outside world, Anna spies on her neighbors. She watches the new neighbors move in across the small park from her gorgeous five-story Harlem townhome (oh, did I mention that already? The book makes quite a bit about the home). They consist of a husband and wife and their attractive teenage son. Through a series of circumstances, Anna meets some of these family members. And then one night she sees something through the Russells’ window that plunges her into a nightmare.
This synopsis is pretty much a rehash of what you would read on the book’s inside cover, and as those who have tried to review books like this before can attest, I really can’t get into much more of the plot without spoiling things. As much as I decried Janet Maslin’s allusion to Christie above, I totally get the connection and can see that Mallory/Finn poured much of his love for classic mysteries into this story.
The problem, of course, is that I have read Christie – all of her, in fact. I have read Carr and Queen and most of the classic authors. I know my way around a murder mystery. Therefore, it will come as no surprise that I sussed out the truth about the crime plot immediately. Right away! Without hesitation, I said, “Thou art the man!” (Or woman – I’m spoiling nothing here!)
I take no pride in this; believe me, I’d rather be fooled. I simply thought the whole thing was rather obvious. The final reveal reminded me of another classic mystery, Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, except I liked Miss Pym and here, like my friend Kate, I felt irritated as hell. I suppose I can’t tell you why without spoiling elements from both books. If you are interested, ask me in the comments section.
What I didn’t figure out was the whole nature of Anna’s mental illness, and while it isn’t a new idea, it was unveiled in an emotionally satisfying way. Best part of the book, just as I said.
If there’s one thing I’m sure of after reading this book, it’s that it is high time we move on from this kind of story. How many more people saddled with amnesia or shock or drug problems or just plain dishonesty have to saturate the publishing world with their tales before we can uncover a new creative twist in the genre? The other thing I’m sure of is that while this is a quick, harmless read, those of you with little time to spare would be much better served watching Rear Window, Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, and all the other movies Anna watched, from which A.J. Finn took bits and pieces and pasted his own plot together.
Final note: Dr. Fox has been trapped in her home for quite some time and as a result of this and her disastrous mental condition is described physically as greying, heavyset, and motherly. Variety announced a few months ago that the movie will be directed by Joe Wright (so good), written by Tracy Letts (so fine), and that Anna will be played by the multi-talented . . . . . . . . . .
Amy Adams (so beautiful – say what?????)
That’s Hollywood for you!