Dan Mallory's "Window" on success

With its voyeuristic theme, his first novel is a best seller, making the alumnus a sudden celebrity by another name.
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April 17, 2018

From a curious interplay between an imagined window and a real window, Dan Mallory ’01 conceived The Woman in the Window.

The debut novel, he’s happy to point out, is the first in twelve years to enter The New York Times best-seller list at number one. There are deals with publishers in forty countries, along with a movie deal. There are quotes from celebrity authors (Stephen King among them): “a noir for the new millennium”; “totally original”; “a dark, twisty confection.”

But there’s the reluctant embrace of his own celebrity, as with the blandly simple, gender-neutral, and conveniently invented name on the book, A.J. Finn. That’s A.J. Finn, and not Dan Mallory, who’s posing for a selfie alongside a London Tube promotional poster, who’s on Facebook and Twitter showing off the cover in its international representations: Dutch. French. Icelandic. Serbian.

“This just seems to be the way I’m wired,” Mallory says. “I couldn’t be happier not to see my name written all over this book. An Australian paper recently wrote something like, ‘Daniel Mallory’s debut thriller is the hottest book in the world.’ And I thought, ‘Ugh, it’s not mine. It’s A.J. Finn’s. Leave my name out of it.’ ”

The Woman in the Window is built on a hundred easily chewable chapters, with rapid-fire, taut, jittery sentences seeming to race to some deadly finish. One chapter’s opening: “Down in the kitchen, drops of rain popping against the window, I pour more merlot into a tumbler. A long swig. I needed that.”

Every story needs an origin, and here it’s pure voyeurism. As Mallory recalls, one night, from his living-room sofa, he was watching the classic Hitchcock film Rear Window. Then, “I caught this light in my peripheral vision.” It was his neighbor turning on a lamp. She was settling herself into an armchair and aiming the remote at a TV. Meanwhile the cinematic action was picking up: “I hear Thelma Ritter chiding Jimmy Stewart: ‘I can smell trouble. You look out the window. You see things you shouldn’t.’ ”

Which brings up a question Mallory gets a lot. “Do New Yorkers really leave their blinds up, leave their curtains unclosed?” He says yes. “I think it’s because we live in one of the world’s most populous and densely compacted cities. So in order to get by every day, in order to ford these vast streams of human traffic, we switch into ‘oblivious mode.’ I don’t expect people on the sidewalk to look at me any more than I find myself looking at them.”

Unexpectedly or not, the central figure in Rear Window, who is confined by a broken leg, is checking out his neighbors. So is Anna Fox, in the book, who is confined by a broken psyche. She’s agoraphobic, a housebound recluse consumed with self-medicating, drinking, tuning in to old movies, and watching, always watching. Mallory mentions another cinematic inspiration, Gaslight, in which a woman is slowly manipulated by her husband into believing she’s going insane. An apparently unreliable narrator, then, drives Mallory’s story: Did Anna see what she thought she saw? Does she even have a grasp on reality?

Particularly at this cultural moment, having a woman as his lead character, a profoundly complicated character at that, seems auspicious. “Hitchcock in movies like North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much placed men into situations where no one believed them and their lives were on the line,” Mallory says. “But women, in general, have a much harder time being taken seriously. One of the abiding frustrations for me about this genre is that women are portrayed as weak, or passive, or reactive. They fret about men. They rely upon men. They orbit men. That’s not how most women are. Not the women I know anyway.”

As for Anna: She’s “a mess.” But she’s also self-reliant—“not a damsel in distress.”

From his apartment in Lower Manhattan, Mallory spent a year writing the novel, toggling between “my writer brain and my editor brain,” as he puts it. His day job was vice president and executive editor with William Morrow, the publishing house that would take on the book—though, initially, with no clue about the real identity of the writer. (He’s given up the editorial position and is now pretty much writing and speaking about writing.)

His personal story can’t be separated from books and more books. One of his earliest memories is reading the Hardy Boys, Agatha Christie, and Sherlock Holmes. (Above his writing desk, which was once his parents’ dining-room table, is a print of Holmes by Sidney Paget, taken from The Strand Magazine.) “I started reading at a very young age, although I didn’t start speaking until a worryingly late age,” he says.

He spent summers in East Hampton at a twelve-bedroom Victorian house—he calls it a “borderline” candidate for condemnation—that went back generations in his mother’s family. It was filled with books by mystery writers. A key feature of his current Chelsea quarters is the built-in bookshelves. Now those shelves house an “eclectic” assortment of genres and authors: Maritime histories. Books about dogs. A Charles Dickens assortment. Sherlock Holmes. Works by Andrea Camilleri, a Sicilian detective writer. “And lots of books about poisoning.”

Before his college years, the family moved to Charlotte, and it was there that movies entered Mallory’s creative consciousness. He lived down the block from a theater that, on weekends, would present film-noir retrospectives, classic-movie nights, and Hitchcock marathons. He would plant himself in the front row. Eventually he would come to admire older movies for their stylistic and sophisticated look and tone. He also discerned a narrative power that allowed them to establish characters and build suspense. “It was a way for me to feel sort of cultured, I guess.”

At Duke, he found culture as a film reviewer for The Chronicle. He showed the depth of a thinker, even as he spun out sentences far removed from the propulsive language of his novel. His take on Shadow of the Vampire, for example, was that deploying “diabolical wit,” the script “equates the monstrous narcissism of the vampire—who saps the life of others to sustain his own existence beyond the boundaries of reason and necessity, and whose rotting exterior fails to incriminate him in mirrors—with the storied arrogance of movie divas.”

Theater was the other important involvement; he acted in six plays. He also started his own theater company and directed a production that included Paul Aronson ’00, now a pediatric- emergency medicine specialist at Yale. “While Dan certainly wanted the end product to be a success—it was, because of his leadership and directing—he also prioritized making the experience special for each of us,” Aronson says. “It is the same principle he carries in the social environment. Whenever we were together at Duke, Dan made each of us feel like the most important person.”

Arcadia, the mind-bending and time-traveling work by Tom Stoppard, provided Mallory’s favorite acting role. Jeffery West, a former theater instructor who directed Arcadia, recalls him as a student who loved wrestling with ideas, and for whom a play that presented complex theme after complex theme, from landscape gardening to Romantic poetry to computer algorithms, seemed “perfect.”

In a year-in-review assessment, The Chronicle declared that as a student actor, Mallory was in a class by himself: “As the brilliant mathematician Valentine, Mallory’s performance was nothing short of astonishing. Why? Because he played an extremely difficult role with wit, ferocity, and passion. Because he could deliver a dazzling monologue, fire off clever one-liners, and cry all in the same scene. Because he looks like a cross between [onetime James Bond actor] Pierce Brosnan and Hugh Grant, only taller.”

Mallory majored in English, and he recalls a class taught by Tom Ferraro, who delighted in obliterating the distinctions between high and low literature. “To be able to enroll in a class in which an esteemed professor places The Godfather on the syllabus— indeed, it enjoyed a privileged place on the syllabus—was a pretty formative experience for me.”

Under English professor Buford Jones, both Mallory and Eva Sayre ’01 worked on senior theses; Mallory’s project was a long work of fiction. The two would push each other via Instant Messenger through late nights of writing, “fueled on my side by techno music and on his side by a steady diet of gummy worms,” says Sayre, now a Berlin-based executive with an “adtech” company. “As his unofficial editor, I spilled plenty of red ink for unimportant grammar edits, but I could never write anything other than ‘!’ for content. Even then, he had an extraordinary ability to create an immersive scene with a tinge of melancholy, to sketch deep captivating characters, and to sprinkle wit like a wink on the page.”

Mallory landed the role of student speaker at graduation; sprinkled throughout his remarks were thoughts on “attitude.” Today he says he doesn’t do well around “colorless” people; he saw his mission at graduation to, in a sense, shock his fellow students out of any colorlessness. “I was exhorting my peers, so many of whom I still remember very vividly as vibrant personalities, to take their zest and their idiosyncrasies into the real world. I didn’t want to see them, or indeed myself, whitewashed by life outside the ivory tower.”

But his own ivory tower stint coincided with what was first diagnosed as depression and then, just three years ago, as bipolar disorder- type 2. (He says a new medication regimen has “significantly improved” his well-being.) On the bipolar scale, that means the emotional highs are not so high, even as the lows are very low. In his view, illness has deepened his empathy and his self-discipline—traits that “turn out to be very useful for a writer.” He practices yoga, structures a reading routine divided between fiction and nonfiction, and, he says, never even considered smoking or drinking. He talks about identifying with individuals who in some sense are marginalized— who feel physically imperfect, maladroit, hapless, or hopeless. He has been all of those things, he says.

The experience of writing the book was “purgative” and “reassuring,” in his words. As the action in the book gets under way, Anna is “not in such a great place,” he says. “I wanted to help her improve herself.”

In conversation, Mallory is comfortably discursive; on the author’s circuit, he’s fine even around giddy questioning about, say, which A-List actors might vie for the movie lead. Still he’s “constitutionally an intensely private and introverted person,” in his self-description. “That will never change. But I’ve come to appreciate that in order to get more out of life, I need to put myself out there more.

“A writer’s job is, aptly enough, bipolar. Some days you’re shackled to your desk in your pajamas, rummaging around inside your own brain. Other days you dress up, speak in front of crowds, and make small talk whilst signing autographs. It’s highly performative. So I simply shift myself into performance mode. This is where my alter ego proves so helpful: A.J. Finn is outgoing and sociable in a way that Dan Mallory isn’t.”

Right after Duke, Mallory remained in education mode rather than performance mode. He headed off to Oxford to earn a Ph.D. in English. (His British fixation began when he was a Duke junior in an Oxford study-abroad program; today in his living room he displays a map of London in 1880 and a drawing of New College, Oxford.) His dissertation was on Patricia Highsmith, best known for The Talented Mr. Ripley. Tom Ripley is fueled by resentment and rule-breaking; as a child, he steals a loaf of bread and devours it greedily, “feeling that the world owed a loaf of bread to him, and more.”

The dependably disciplined Mallory considers himself “very rules-conscious and law-abiding,” and so, for him, Highsmith’s Ripley is “thrilling and disturbing in equal measure.” He says, “When you read a Sherlock Holmes story, you know that by the end, the innocent will be redeemed or rewarded, the guilty will be punished, and justice will be upheld or restored. Highsmith subverts all that. Through some alchemy, she persuades us to root for sociopaths. Tom Ripley is a bad guy. He’s a murderer. He commits the ultimate transgression over and over. And yet, we root for him. We want him to get away with it.”

For four years post-Oxford, Mallory spearheaded a crimeand- thriller publishing division at Sphere, a British mass-market imprint; Agatha Christie is among its published authors. With his multiple avenues into the genre, he thought it “might be quite fun” to write a novel. “Authors seem to enjoy their lives.”

His next novel—and he’s already hard at work at it—is set in San Francisco. It features three female narrators. There are curious doings in an old Victorian mansion, again with colliding psyches, perceptions, and pathologies. “A writer is a voyeur,” he says. “But so is a reader. That’s why we read, presumably—to commune with others, even if they’re fictional. To experience their lives, to enjoy vicariously their adventures. And not only is that an act of voyeurism. It’s an act of empathy.”

With his love of a gripping mystery, Mallory can sound a lot like the character he played, back at Duke, in Arcadia. Valentine, the philosopher-mathematician, reflects on what’s unknowable through science, though not through art: “The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about— clouds, daffodils, waterfalls, and what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in—these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks.”

As Valentine might have said, and as Dan Mallory—or A.J. Finn—would surely say, the human mind is the greatest mystery. Then a window appears and a story emerges from the shadows.