It would indeed be a novelty for a psychological thriller not to be pitched as “twisted”, with an unreliable female character at its heart, and in the same breath, be called the next Gone Girl. AJ Finn’s The Woman in the Window – already a New York Times bestseller a month since its release, preceded by a film deal with Fox – has been referred to as all of the above. Frankly, all this hard-sell can be a bit off putting – how many “next Gone Girl”s can there be?
The Woman in the Window, thankfully, unfolds with enough originality of its own – ironically, through some crafty nods to film noir and the very new-age bestsellers it is being compared to – while managing to go beyond the clichés of the genre in a post Gone Girl literary world. To be sure, The Woman in the Window may never have been written if Gone Girl hadn’t come along, followed closely by The Girl on the Train. The man behind the pseudonym AJ Finn is Dan Mallory, a long-time crime fiction books editor, who wrote in secret for a year in his one-room apartment in Chelsea, New York, inspired as he was by the success of Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins, as it became clear the genre wasn’t merely a passing fad.
It was in his apartment in 2015, as he sat recovering from a wave of depression, that the idea for such a book dawned. As he watched Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 Rear Window, Mallory found himself glancing through his own window at a woman in a town home across the street. “Voyeurism is timeless,” Mallory remarked in an interview while talking about the realisation that led to The Woman in the Window, a title in which he specifically sought to not “infantilise” the woman at its centre as a “girl”, going against the trend.
Certainly, the well-scripted homage to Hitchcock’s delicious cinema and other worthy films of the genre – Rear Window, Shadow of a Doubt, Gaslight, and in flashes, Vertigo, even Psycho, by suggestion – is what fuels The Woman in the Window, setting up its protagonist’s personality, heightening the tension and offering narrative clues. Instead of a hero with a broken foot, here we have 38-year-old child therapist Dr Anna Fox, a compulsive consumer of classic noir cinema and bottles of Merlot. Something terrible happened not long ago, and now she is crippled with the anxiety disorder agoraphobia, unable to step outside her posh four-storey Harlem home.
We’re told her husband, Ed, and eight-year-old daughter, Olivia, have moved out and that she relies on home delivery for all her daily needs. Flashbacks take us briefly outside the home, to what happened that led to Anna’s breakdown. In the mould of confined space as a device – something Hitchcock channelled to eerie effect – the physical and mental entrapment of Anna in her dimly-lit interiors creates a spookiness that leaps off the page for most part.
Her windows are her doorway to the neighbourhood beyond her walls, providing some relief from her mundane routine, as she spies on her neighbours new and old, often through her Nikon D5500, zooming in, snapping pictures. Since it is 2018 and we are not in a classic noir frame, there is also the internet and her iPhone through which she keeps some connections alive. Google helps further her spying habits and allows her to spend a part of her grief-filled days logged in on an Agora support group, playing chess and even briefly flirting with the idea of being on Tinder.
In person, we don’t meet many characters. There’s David, the dashing tenant living in her basement, Bina, her physiotherapist, and fleeting conversations with her family and psychiatrist. We get to know Anna only through her own voice. Then she meets the woman from next door, Jane Russell and her teenage son Ethan, who uncorks Anna’s soft, protective, therapist side. As the fog seems to lift, it all comes crashing down again when she spies Jane, over at the Russells’ home, being stabbed. She assumes it is her husband, Alistair, who is the murderer.
Enter Detective Little. Anna’s story doesn’t add up, it appears, as Little gently pokes holes in what she has told us so far. She is a woman with an anxiety disorder, after all, one who mixes medication with an alarming quantity of wine, obsessed with suspense flicks to boot. On top of it, a discovery near the middle of the novel further alienates her from what may be real. Is she being gaslighted or is she imagining things?
Anna isn’t devious like Amy from Gone Girl or as hopeless as Rachel from Girl in the Train. Anna’s unreliability and self-destructive nature are different. This lends her a kind of vulnerability as well as a quiet strength. As a reader, you will possibly doubt her motivations in the taut, breathless opening scene, where Anna is settling in for an evening of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (“I am the woman who viewed too much”, she quips, her wry humour often the only ray of light) when she spies, gleefully, her neighbour about to land in a hot mess. But on another day, when she thinks she has been witness to a murder, watching from the same window, Anna turns, at once, a sort of gatekeeper of justice, willing to fight alone.
For a book that begins with crisp, punchy turns that have the ability to knock the wind out of you, relying more on clever sentence structuring than action to crank up the tension, the pace starts to sag early on. Since Finn works with very few characters and a very specific setting, once you are well-acquainted with Anna’s claustrophobic world, the wait till the central crime begins to test your patience. The pace picks up midway, when you begin to feel Anna’s pain, her loss of love, her loneliness, her self-doubt and her madness, the extent of which is something that unravels gradually, shifting gears in the climax.
Some of the plot surprises are suitably unpredictable, changing the tone of the novel as we zigzag through the mystery, but a big one feels like a bit of a cop-out, too convenient and easy to sniff from a distance, especially if you’re familiar with a certain template of whodunits. It also makes you wonder: did Finn rely too heavily on his personal passion for the genre to get caught in a series of ode after ode?
It’s fun while it lasts, though, all the referencing, with cinema and real time suspense blending seamlessly, to create some heady scenes. Would readers not tuned into Hitchcock’s best find it as trippy? Perhaps not. But then Finn’s best offering remains Anna Fox, a worthy protagonist who will linger. In a good way. The Woman in the Window is obviously excellent movie material: think several films within a film. Now the next guessing game: who will make a great Anna Fox on screen? One hears Cate Blanchett and Amy Adams have already expressed interest. Our money’s on Blanchett.