“Her husband’s almost home. He’ll catch her this time.” Thus begins the next best-selling murder mystery that captures our imagination and maintains the zeitgeist. As soon as last year’s Gone Girl has completely faded, this year’s The Girl on the Train steps up to take its place. Eventually that, too, fades, and the vacuum re-emerges, sucking, hungry, demanding to be filled with the next good murder story. We are the vacuum, downloading true crime podcasts with baited breath, settling for fiction when that won’t do, demanding that movie adaptations be produced, but good ones, with A-list actors.
It seems like it has always been like this, but it hasn’t. The work of Alfred Hitchcock set the standard for really good, mainstream murder mysteries. His final film, Family Plot (1976), today holds a 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and returned three times its budget, making $6 million when video rentals took off, years later. That same year Agatha Christie died, and for years, there was a vacuum of good murder mysteries that captivated a mass audience, with few exceptions. Mediocre ones were a dime a dozen, and every now and then something good would come through. But the murder fiction industrial complex was not what it is now.
Or perhaps I should reframe that. Each generation had its murder mystery icons. Hitchcock and Christie dominated for 50 years. The ’60s and ’70s had true crime like In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter, or Amityville Horror. Stephen King dominated all horror in the ’80s and ’90s, and James Patterson captivated murder mystery lovers in the ’90s and ’00s. Now that the millennial generation is inheriting the conversation and dominating the market, our true crime icons are Sarah Koenig, Karen Kilgariff/Georgia Hardstark, or Last Podcast on the Left. Meanwhile, our murder fiction obsessions include Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and Girl on the Train.
The Woman in the Window, the latest best-seller in the murder mystery industrial complex, richly deserves its place among the stars. A.J. Finn does so well what many other storytellers can’t: gives you about a hundred pages of compelling character development before the inevitable plot. Our protagonist, Anna Fox, could be taught as a master class of the “unreliable narrator”. She loves classic Hollywood films, red wine by the gallon, and her estranged husband and daughter. As you are reading her words and learning about her insular existence, agoraphobic and housebound, watching her neighbors, as if praying for a murder to happen, you start to realize that there’s information she’s keeping from us. Finn reveals little bursts of detail in very clever ways, even from the beginning. In the second chapter when Anna is talking to her daughter, if you blink you will miss that she’s not in the room with her, thus building on the narrative of her separation with her husband, which is both the cause and effect of the isolation.
Without giving too much away, thus spoiling the mystery, permit me to reveal that Anna does see something. Her testimony, however, is questioned, to the point where she begins to even doubt herself. But the truth is even stranger than the fiction. Finn’s portrayal of Anna’s agoraphobia is chilling, making the reader feel the same helplessness Anna must feel. How can you trust yourself to save the day if you can’t even leave your house? Finn is successful at making us love Anna, wishing we were in the room with her for a game of chess, while also bringing us to the point where we begin to doubt her ourselves. The experience of reading this novel is interesting, as Finn writes in short bursts of chapters that are sometimes as short as two pages. These short passages just make it all the more engrossing and, as Stephen King called it, “unputdownable”.
Readers of this book will immediately pick up traces of Rear Window, Vertigo, and even the aforementioned The Girl on the Train in the plot. At first, I worried this would be a rehashing of genre staples, that there truly is nothing new under the sun. But Finn name drops the exact references while still maintaining the classically beautiful prose, and writes characters that savor the same details of old Hitchcock movies that its reader does. It is self-aware. The Woman In the Window is clearly a love-letter to the genre and an homage to the classics. Even the cover of the book, with the blood-red lettering juxtaposed against the blue-black of a set of Venetian blinds, is so familiar and specific, you start to wonder what it’s referencing. In fact, part of what makes the doubt surrounding Anna’s testimony convincing is the fact that she’s very wrapped up in classic murder mystery films, to the point where she believes she must be in one. And yes, the film Gaslight is cleverly mentioned by name.
My complaints are few. While the ending is dramatically satisfying, it seems like Finn had several options to choose from for how this story could play itself out and just seemed to pick one at random, then writing in ways to justify it. The other characters, too, seemed to pop over to Anna’s house, like a one-scene play, but then have to come up with various explanations for why they were there when it seemed against their own motivations or best interests, to the point where you don’t really buy it. For the story to work, you do need the characters to keep coming back, but I found their explanations lacking, almost unnatural. This did not take away from the overall success of the book, mind you, and I acknowledge these are my nit-picky criticisms. It did make me think that the movie version, already in development with Joe Wright (Atonement, The Darkest Hour) set to direct, would suffer if they left these in. I’m picturing how much drama and violence they may have to play up to satisfy the vacuum.
The book does not include a dust jacket photo of Finn, and finds a way to never refer to Finn’s gender pronouns in the “About The Author” section. Obviously not the first writer to keep their gender vague, it seems like a clever marketing trick; avoid alienating your male audience by not marketing it as some sort of “chick lit”, and avoid alienating your female audience by not specifying if this is actually a man trying to write from a woman’s perspective. I will spoil this for you: A.J. Finn is a pseudonym, for a man named Daniel Mallory, an editor for the publishing company, William Morrow, which is affiliated with this book’s publisher, Harper Collins. He has been editing books like his for years, which explains his expertise in the genre. In my opinion, he successfully wrote a believable and flawed female protagonist with personality and range in The Woman in the Window, though you may disagree.
Could Mallory’s professional connections be the reason his debut novel, written under another name, be the reason “New York Times Bestseller” is stamped on the cover of its first edition? A cursory search finds that the exact methods for calculating best-sellers is a secret. So, short answer: maybe. But maybe people saw the cover, were hoping for a satisfying murder mystery, and bought copies of the book in droves. There are over 2,000 reviews on Amazon, and it’s charting as the 16th most read book on that site. Would that I could see exact numbers on book sales, like we have for films and album sales. Another time, perhaps. All this to say, the zeitgeist has been maintained, and the beast is sated for now, though it’s hunger for the movie version has already started.