To say A.J. Finn is a specialist in crime would be something of an understatement. It’s been part of his cultural DNA almost since he started reading.
As a child, the family would return to his mother’s rambling, family home at East Hampton on Long Island – “sounds very glamorous, but the place was a wreck, borderline condemned” – that was stuffed with mysteries, thrillers and detective novels. Everyone read them and Finn was encouraged to as well. He adored Agatha Christie and the writers of the Golden Age.
Later he discovered Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith, and as a graduate student at New College, Oxford, wrote his doctoral thesis on Highsmith. So when he finished his studies it seemed logical to get into publishing. He spent 10 years at the Little, Brown imprint Sphere in London, where he specialised in – what else? – crime and thriller publishing, before shifting back to the United States where he is executive editor at William Morrow. For the moment.
The next step seems inevitable, at least to the outside observer. When we speak over the phone, he from his home in Chelsea, New York, it is only five days before publication of his first novel, The Woman in the Window, four days before the script for the film adaptation is due (not from him, but more of that later) and two days before he abandons a publishing career that has included looking after Christie’s work.
After we’ve established whether I call him A.J. – as in his pseudonym – or Dan as in Daniel Mallory, his real name, I wonder how’s he feeling about becoming a full-time novelist? “It’s frightening; I will be out of the publishing game entirely.” And beginning his new life with publication of his first novel, which has already been sold into 38 territories? “Anxious. Eager yet nervous.”
The Woman in the Window is a taut thriller about Anna Fox, a psychologist with an encyclopaedic knowledge of old noir films, who sees from the window of her four-storey Harlem home in New York something nasty happen to one of her neighbours. But there’s little Anna can do about it as she is agoraphobic and lives on her own after separating from her husband Ed, who has custody of their daughter Olivia. Furthermore, Anna has a significant drink problem and is on serious drugs for her mental health … no surprise, then, that no one believes what she says.
Somehow she has to get to the bottom of who those neighbours, the Russells, really are, what really happened to Jane Russell, why their son Ethan keeps turning up on her doorstep and what her handsome lodger David, who rents her basement, has been up to.
Not easy when you can’t go outside, your meds are going haywire and you’re drinking two or three bottles of merlot a day.
It is a cinematic novel, plotted carefully and written in 100 short chapters that ensure the momentum rarely dips below full speed. The tension is heightened by it all taking place in Anna’s home. So, a contemporary locked-room mystery with the most unreliable of narrators.
It sounds as if Finn has led a charmed life and the path to publication has been as smooth as the red wine Anna drinks (she does like a top drop, it has to be said). But it wasn’t quite as simple as that. When Finn was 21 he was diagnosed with severe depression. “For 15 years thereafter I wrestled with it and in doing so resorted to pretty much every treatment imaginable.” Then in summer 2015 he saw a “brilliant Russian” psychiatrist who concluded Finn had been misdiagnosed: he didn’t have unipolar depression, he was bipolar.
“I argued because I am argumentative by nature and said I had never experienced what I would consider a manic episode; I had never gone berserk the way Carrie does in Homeland. He said ‘there are different strains of bipolar and I think you’ve got what we call bipolar two where the highs are not so high, but the lows are lower and last longer’.”
The upshot was another prescription and he knew what to expect, changing from old medication to new. “I know it’s an unpleasant experience – I always feel like Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk.”
But it was during the summer, and with the publishing industry in virtual hiatusFinn spent weeks on his sofa “gorging myself on books I love and old films”. The new meds seemed to be working and one night, while watching Rear Window, “a light flared in my peripheral vision and I saw that my neighbour had turned on a light in her home and as I watched her I thought ‘this is funny, Jimmy Stewart on my screen in 1953’.”
At that moment he realised maybe there was a story to be had, a way to reboot Hitchcock’s film for the 21st century.
“I wanted to write a thriller that made use of the tropes that Rear Window established, but at the same time I wanted to create a book that had a bit more on its mind and in its heart than your average psychological thriller or domestic noir. So it was a happy collision of character who was freighted with a lot of what I had experienced and plot.”
Anna is seriously flawed but also quite formidable in her way. Finn doesn’t like many genre-fiction female characters “even those in starring roles because they obsess over men, they fret about men, they’re reliant on men, they orbit men and in my experience that isn’t particularly real”, which is he thinks why characters such as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl and Lisbeth Salander in the Dragon Tattoo series have made such an impact.
The same applies in films, he says. Anna is very much the opposite to the character played by Grace Kelly in Rear Window. “The heroines of these older films for the most part are pretty weak, they don’t do much. It’s usually up to the menfolk to swing in and save them.”
Finn has always been attracted to novels and films with a single setting. He cites Phillip Noyce’s film, Dead Calm, as an example.
“In noir and Hitchcock – I do distinguish between them – characters are constantly seeking confinement. Hitchcock famously staged a number of films in confined settings – Rope, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Lifeboat. In noir films by his contemporaries, characters are always ducking into dark alleys, taking refuge in bars trying to escape the world that is seeking to punish them. In so doing they create their own little hell, their own insular reality. That’s what I wanted to create for Anna Fox.”
And as you get further into the book, “you realise that the house itself is a kind of villain or enemy that she must defeat in order to salvage herself. What she believes is a refuge is literally a prison.”
Finn’s manuscript was submitted anonymously to William Morrow. He was on holiday at the time, which was some relief as it “would have shred my nerves” to be at the editorial meeting where it would have been discussed.
I wondered about how his work as an editor affected his writing and how it affected the editing process.
“Editing is in some way a surprisingly proactive process in that you are constantly challenged to come up with solutions to editorial issues. But fundamentally you are reacting, you are absorbing the prose and registering your response. In writing my book I was able to do that even as I created that response. It was an internal dialogue for better or worse and I’d say for better because it did help me whip through the manuscript at a pretty steady pace.”
And since the manuscript was bought and the film rights sold he has distanced himself from the actual publishing. But he will travel extensively – Brazil, Holland, Korea – to help, having already done so on both side of the Atlantic for pre-publication promotion.
Finn is keen for the book to pay off for his 38 publishers. After all, he knows what it’s like to acquire a book.
“It’s been widely and accurately reported that I made a whacking good sum out of this book,” he acknowledges. “Given what they have put into this book, given that I know what I have put into the books that I have published, it’s only fair that they see a maximum return on investment.”
Hollywood got wind of the book early in the process and Fox paid a seven-figure sum to buy the rights rather than option them. Oscar winner Scott Rudin is producing and Pulitzer winner Tracy Letts, author of August: Osage County, is due to submit his script the day before the novel is published. “Wow, yes,” he says when he realises this is imminent.
The Woman in the Window references many old films and, like the use of music in Ian Rankin’s novels, they provide a sort of emotional soundtrack to Anna’s predicament and enhance the atmosphere. But there’s one film that Anna doesn’t mention – Rear Window.
The Woman in the Window is published on January 15 by HarperCollins at $29.99.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.