UNRELIABLE ME: The Woman in the Window

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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 WindowShadow of a DoubtVertigo, 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 . . . . . . . . . .

 

 

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That’s Hollywood for you!

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41 thoughts on “UNRELIABLE ME: The Woman in the Window

  1. Anna also might have seen a Sigourney Weaver movie from 1995 called Copycat, about an agoraphobic psychologist who is menaced by a serial killer who copies serial killers from the past. Not a bad movie (a great role for Harry Connick Jr. in a terrifying dental plate).

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    1. I vaguely recall this one, if only for the normally gorgeous HCJr looking awful. There are no new ideas going on here. Finn is playing Dr. Frankenstein with a lot of fine body parts from other stories. That’s less okay for me because he edits this stuff for a living.

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      1. Small comfort, but it’s better than the butchers who put incompatible “body parts” into Christie’s own stories (Miss Marple and others) and pass them off as “Agatha Christie’s [insert title]”! At least this fellow created his own story and his own characters, however derivative.

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  2. Thanks for the warning, Brad.

    Maslin’s not the only one to think that Christie was the doyenne of the locked-room mystery. I had cause to rant about the same comment (almost word-for-word) appearing on the cover of another novel wot I read a year or two back and now, of course, can’t identify[*]; as per Finn’s book, that too was not in fact a locked-room mystery, Christie-like or otherwise.

    [*] I’d thought it was the much overrated Camilla Läckberg’s The Stonecutter, but I see from my Goodreads rant that that novel was merely a totally unChristie-like book labeled as Christie-ish by the Washington Post.

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    1. Yeah, but Lackberg started being called “Sweden’s Agatha Christie” write after The Ice Princess came out, and that was totally uncalled for!

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  3. Sorry to hear this was a disappointment on several levels, Brad. Oh, and before I go any further, I couldn’t agree with you more about the continuation of the Poirot stories. But let’s put that aside, shall we? As to this novel, it sounds as though the one thing that would have set this novel apart, and made it really interesting, was the one thing that wasn’t given a lot of attention. Hmm…. Nope, I don’t think this one’s for me…

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    1. In fairness, I think the agoraphobic angle was played up – and it’s certainly the most interesting thing here. The character’s struggles with it are rendered well. It’s a quick read, Margot, if you decide to give it a try.

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  4. Following this and Sharp Objects, Amy Adams is fast becoming the go-to for the Psychologically Scarred Alcoholic, eh? Also, is it just me or is there a trend in these sorts of sthillers that no matter how unpalatable the protagonist becomes the ex-husband or some other family-unit-reinforcing presence is always there to look out for them?

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    1. SPOILER ALERT: Ooh, JJ! I asked myself that question throughout, to the point where I figured the husband had to be in on this! I’ll just say that Finn addresses this issue satisfactorily!

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  5. And of course Rear Window was a short story buy Cornell Woolrich! It always comes back to the Golden Age. When I saw the reviews for this and that the films rights had already been snapped up before it was actually published I admittedly was skeptical. It’s a shame that the plot is so see-through as there could be a lot going for this it sounds like.

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  6. There is nothing new under heaven, is as they say, a cliché! And this is one rewrite, or version I will not be bothering to read, no matter how highly rated or hyped.

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      1. Oh, I understand and feel for them, but at the same time, how about coming up with something new or fresh? And don’t get me started on backcover blurbs and pullquotes by people who haven’t read the book.

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  7. I’ve read so many reviews of this book and I still can’t find a thing about it that would lure me to open its cover. What would these would-be writers do without their DVD players and the stockpile of old movies available to them? The whole idea of the plot just sucks, IMO. However, for those looking for a nice retro Golden Age contemporary murder mystery I heartily recommend THE WORD IS MURDER by Anthony Horowitz. It renewed my faith in the future of the traditional mystery . Of course it helps when the genre is in the hands of a talented writer.

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  8. Hmm, I’ve been contemplating this one since it first came out, but you might have given me a push into reading it, with no high expectations, just because I’m intrigued by the Miss Pym connection and want to have a spoileresque discussion at some point! I have avoided the comments for now…

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      1. At least you got it cheaply. And it is a very quick read. But the Miss Pym connection is . . . Well, don’t go looking for academic settings, well-drawn female characters or the like. I won’t say any more, just . . . please come back, Moira! 🙏

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      2. POSSIBLY SPOILERESQUE

        Right, it was readable enough – though virtually nothing happens till 28% of the way through (except she tells a lie for no reason I could see?). And pretty much, no surprises? Anyone who reads a lot of crime surely can see coming: the truth about her family, the business about the discussion board, and the reverse about the crime victim (and perp). And the clue of the earring that tells you….
        I’m REALLY surprised he’s a crime editor – hadn’t he seen all of those done a hundred times? Because I have, and no-one pays me to read them. And the earring clue didn’t even have a twist to it…

        But it passed an hour or two. And I can see where you are going with Miss Pym I think.

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  9. Important news for impossible crime fans:
    An important reference book for impossible crimes is Locked Room Murders by Robert Adey. This was first published in 1979 and then an updated and enlarged edition was published in 1991. The 1991 edition lists above 2000 locked room novels and short stories with a very brief summary of each and with even briefer solutions at the back of the book.
    Unfortunately the book has long been out of print and only a few copies are available in the used books market at exorbitant prices.
    The good news is that Locked Room International (owned by 83 year old John Pugmire of New York) is republishing the 1991 edition of the book. It will be released soon (by the middle of this month)..

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  10. Moira – The cynic in me thinks he was so aware of the formula that he decided to cash in on it. And it evidently worked, although the first positive review I read suggested that the book illustrates that the “unreliable narrator” sub-genre is on its way out. Good news, indeed!

    If you read/hear an interview with him, he talks about how voraciously he read classic authors and how big an influence Christie and her ilk were on him. This “twist” on the killer’s identity suggests he didn’t read as much Christie as he claims or he was too lazy to come up with a really original twist. The fact that Anna calls the killer a “good . . . “ over and over, based on her job expertise, is what reminded me of Miss Pym. It’s also the only obfuscation the author provides from the all too obvious truth!

    Well, he’s making his millions, and I still can’t afford to redo my shower. Such is life! 🙂

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    1. Yes indeed. It does seem perhaps to be a rather cynical money-making venture, but fair play to him: he succeeded by those terms.
      I was talking to someone about it today and I said: if you do a job involving solving problems for other people – whether IT, or web content, or as a landlady, or a librarian – you get used to people saying ‘you will never have come across this problem before, this is extraordinary, nothing has ever gone wrong like this’. And if you are the problem-solver, you probably already know what it is from this, and you are certainly not going to have any dififculties sorting it out. Reading a crime story like this one is rather like that.. You live in hope that it really will be different, but it so rarely is…

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  11. I’m surprised that you found Miss Pym Disposes enjoyable in the end, but this book annoying. I was furious for a week after finishing Miss Pym, because of the sheer monstrous injustice and how little Miss Pym cares.

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      1. Fair enough. I was just so upset and disturbed it’s hard to look past how strange Miss Pym’s behavior is. But it’s definitely a really masterful mystery – and the fact that I was so affected speaks to Tey’s strength as a writer (even though I still think Daughter of Time is her only really standout book.)

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  12. Lets face it. With the possible exception of Steig Larsson, most modern writers just can’t construct a strong mystery. They rely on anorexicly thin plots, cardboard and predictable characters and often, the real mystery is how the garbage got published.

    The extremely objectionable modern practice of resurrecting dead writers is appalling. The efforts to mimic the aforementioned Larsson were so god awful I found myself laughing out loud at places. The Poirot stories by whatshername are equally unreadable drek.

    I would dearly love to see someone who could build a slick mystery like Gardner could; an intensely complex plot like Christie; a strong story line like Grafton; interesting characters like Doyle… but so far every modern mystery I’ve picked up has disappointed, to be charitable.

    I continue to hope vainly that someday this will happen. I belong to a womens’ mystery writers group and am always examining their new wares. BTW guilty secret: I love cozy mysteries. They’re short, fun and entertaining and exceptional fare for the loo. 🙂

    Thanks for the post Brad…just had to get this off my chest.

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