My faith in the publishing industry began to erode the day I read Gone Girl, a book hyped as the thriller of the century, not to mention a feminist manifesto. With its violent, sadistic, and unbelievable narrator, was this the best American literature had to offer?
Gone Girl soon spawned a cottage industry of “girl” thrillers with unreliable protagonists. I even overheard an agent at a writers’ conference seeking more pitches like Girl on the Train.
With The Woman in the Window,which arrived in the wake of a series of “woman” titles, we have reached a new low. Written under the female sounding pseudonym A.J. Finn, the mystery is narrated by the mother of all unreliable narrators. Penned by the real life Dan Mallory,the book has an easy-to-guess plot and over-the top language.
Take Dan Mallory’s metaphors, which he uses, not to compare an action or an object to something similar, but something entirely different. Like Donald Trump, he makes word soup. “Scaffolding stuck to its (a building’s) façade like hanging gardens.” Huh? When did scaffolding ever look like a garden? “My robe smeared across the floor like a skid mark,” “Thoughts tumble-drying in my brain.” The off-putting metaphors are relentless.
At the outset, critics pointed out that the book seemed to have stolen plots of several movies including Rear Window and Copycat. But by then Mallory had already secured a two-book, two-million-dollar deal and enthusiastic blurbs from Stephen King and Gillian Flynn. Did King and Flynn actually read the book? Or did they merely return favors from industry bigwigs? Mallory himself was a business insider after all, working as an editor for his publisher William Morrow. A million dollar movie deal naturally followed.
The public ate the hype. Critics, insiders themselves, gave cautiously optimistic reviews. If you read in between the lines of Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times and Joyce Carol Oates’ piece in the New Yorker, however, you can detect veiled barbs at Mallory’s staccato prose, “teetering breathlessly on stiletto heels,” his one-dimensional narrator, his formulaic plot, and his very predictable ending.
As if this were not scandalous enough, the New York Times soon broke the news that the book had been plagiarized from a mystery novel titled Saving April written by Sarah Denzil and published in Britain.
Not to be outdone, the New Yorker revealed that Dan Mallory had, for decades, engaged in a trail of deception, claiming, at various times, to have received electroconvulsive therapy, taken medication for bipolar disorder, nursed his mother until her death from breast cancer, and tended to his mentally disadvantaged brother as he succumbed to cystic fibrosis. At another time Mallory claimed that his brother had committed suicide and that he himself had a brain tumor for which he was receiving treatment. Additionally, he repeatedly and falsely claimed to have a doctorate from Oxford. A complete list of his fabrications is too long to cite here.
Did Mallory tell lies to get sympathy and draw attention to his book? One can only guess. Needless to say, his brother and mother are quite alive, the latter even went traveling with him on his book tour.
The charge of plagiarism turns out to be serious as well. After spending my hard-earned money to buy Denzil’s novel and reading it side by side with The Woman in the Window (which I borrowed from the library), I can personally vouch for the fact that the plots of the two novels match point by point. Both have middle-aged protagonists suffering from agoraphobia. Both kill their husbands and children in car crashes while sparring with their spouses over alleged infidelities. Afterwards, both spy on their unhappily married neighbors who have adopted teenage children with addicted birthmothers. Both suspect their neighbors’ husbands to be guilty of serious crimes. In both novels – spoiler alert – the teenagers turn out to be the psychopathic killers in the end.
In other words, we have a publishing sensation who, at worst, has plagiarized another writer’s work, and at best, created a potboiler from a mishmash of stolen yarns. The publishing sensation also happens to be a pathological liar who lacks any sense of morality or ethics.
You might ask what the character of a writer has to do with his writing but in the age of Donald Trump, is it really okay to accept a successful professional’s lies and falsehoods? What kind of an example are we setting for society? For the younger generation?
But Mallory’s story didn’t end there. The most appalling moment came when, appearing as a guest of honor at the Jaipur Literary Festival, Mallory publicly accused the New Yorker of maligning him. Soon after, however, he was forced to admit to lying.
The episode raised another question for me. As Indian writers, do we want to play mere sycophants to the American publishing industry? Or do we want to put a spotlight on deserving Indian authors who are languishing in obscurity?