Engagingly chatty and given to witty asides, Daniel Mallory seems unlikely as the author — under the pseudonym A.J. Finn — of a brooding thriller with an agoraphobic protagonist literally housebound by remorse and anxiety. On the contrary, his first novel, “The Woman in the Window” (William Morrow, 427 pp., $26.99), is “the culmination of a life of crime,” as he says jokingly. Under his real name, Mallory spent more than a decade editing mysteries and thrillers at Sphere Books in London, then back home in the States at William Morrow. He clearly learned from his experiences; “The Woman in the Window” debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list in January. Speaking by telephone from his apartment in Manhattan, Mallory/Finn mused on the genre’s perennial appeal and assessed its recent evolution.
You have loved crime fiction since you were a child, is that right?
My whole family does — I don’t know what it is! We would all sit slouched around the house reading books. It was quite a privilege growing up that way; I’m really grateful to my parents for not only expecting me to read but actually insisting on it.
Your mother’s family home in East Hampton had a library stuffed with mysteries and thrillers, and it seems that was an important place for you.
It was. My family moved around a lot. We started out in Garden City, then moved to Virginia when I was 9, and then to North Carolina. But every summer we would return to East Hampton, and I absolutely savored those summers. I consider East Hampton my hometown, having been there every single summer of my 38-year-old life. It’s the place in the world I know better than anywhere else. Not to sound obnoxious, but it’s my spiritual home; I just feel very relaxed there.
You studied crime fiction as a graduate student at Oxford before devoting your professional life to it. What do you think makes this genre so compelling?
The reason crime fiction has pretty much since its inception dominated our imaginations and bestseller lists and box-office charts is that in its purest and most common form it is supposed to be reassuring. When you read a Sherlock Holmes story, you know that in the end the virtuous will be redeemed or rewarded, the guilty punished and order upheld or restored. That is comforting to us, particularly in a world that is increasingly fraught.
That said, one of the reasons Patricia Highsmith thrills and disturbs me so much is because she subverted those norms. In “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train,” the protagonists are killers and sociopaths, and through some dark alchemy she encourages us to root for them. But mostly, we read these novels because we like to see justice meted out; we want some reassurance that the world is fundamentally a fair place.
Your protagonist, Anna Fox, is very troubled, but she’s definitely not a sociopath. Were you surprised to find yourself writing from the point of view of a woman?
I didn’t really challenge it, but if I were to look into my addled subconscious, I think I would find that the core of the novel is a parent-child relationship, and with all due respect to dads, I find that bond much more moving if the parent is a woman. I also wanted to offer a corrective to what I see as a distinctly worrying trend in genre fiction. So often the female characters in starring roles are what the British call “wet.” They fret about men, they rely on men, they predicate their emotional welfare on men, and in my experience, this is not very realistic.
Most women I know are more than a match for the men in their lives. I think this is one of the reasons Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and Amy Dunne in “Gone Girl” made such an impact on readers; like most women, they can manage their men. Anna Fox is a mess, but I’ll say this for her: she owns her mess. In the course of this book, she identifies an inquiry, pursues an investigation and confronts an antagonist, all without the help of a man.
You recently left William Morrow to write full-time. Will you miss editing?
I loved my job, I loved my colleagues, and I’m really pleased to be continuing my association with them as an author. I’ve been in publishing for more than a decade, and I’m excited to try this new adventure.