Books

Murder Mystery 'The Woman in the Window' Teaches a Masterclass in the Unreliable Narrator

A.J. Finn's The Woman In the Window is clearly a love letter to the genre and an homage to the classics.

The Woman in the Window
A. J. Finn

Harper Collins

Jan 2018

Amazon
Other

"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.

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Prof. Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.