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book review

Beware of books bearing flim-flam. Here we have a first novel from A.J. Finn, a complete unknown, with a front cover spouting: "It isn't paranoia if it's really happening." An inside letter touts publishing gold: "Sold for record advances in 35 countries," and film rights pre-emptively sold with "A-list actresses clamouring for the role." Along with the usual plaudits from known authors – Gillian Flynn, Louise Penny – and the essential reference to The Girl on the Train, we get the unhappy news (to a reviewer) that A.J. Finn is "one of us" – that is, a publishing insider. The ancient joke about Abraham Lincoln's doctor's dog dances in my head. "Insiders" all too often put together a batch of what the public buys into a potboiled mess and then market it as caviar. So I approach The Woman in the Window (even the title is suspect) with suspicion. The epigraph is from the old film noir Shadow of a Doubt, one of my favourites. If A.J. Finn favours that, he/she must have something on the ball.

A.J. Finn turns out to be the nom de plume for Daniel Mallory, an executive editor at Morrow, the book's publisher, with a special interest in mysteries and film noir. The Woman in the Window is his tribute to both genres and, let me say outright, he does them credit, which I did not expect. But this isn't The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or any other girl book. There are no flashy shocks or unexpected twists. I guessed the one real mystery many pages ahead and I think most readers will also. What this is is an intelligent, carefully constructed novel of psychological suspense that focuses on a single character whose moods, secrets and fears drive the plot. It's here, in that slow buildup, that Finn/Mallory shows his real talent. He's much more in tune with the intense characters of Minette Walters or Frances Fyfield.

The central character, really the only character, is Dr. Anna Fox, once a prominent child psychologist, now an agoraphobic, alcoholic recluse, holed up in her handsome house in a nice Harlem neighbourhood with a small park. She is alone with a cat, and a hunky tenant in the basement apartment. Anna knows all her neighbours, not that she visits or even calls them – but she spends her days viewing them, intimately, with her trusty Nikon's zoom lens. Affairs, fights, sobs, dinners, sex, Anna watches it all, killing time, creating storylines. The rest of her day is spent glugging merlot, playing chess online and doing a bit of desultory doctoring for people in an agoraphobia chatroom. One woman manages to interest her. In the evening she chats with her estranged husband and daughter, begging him to come back and being reminded that he's gone, the marriage is over and that "too much contact" is to be avoided. It is not, obviously, much of a life.

Here, right at the opening, we have signals from Rear Window, not one of Anna's favourite movies but one of mine. We know that Anna is going to witness a murder and that no one is going to believe her. But nothing happens. Anna drifts in the Slough of Despond, glugging, sleeping, dosing herself with drugs that are never supposed to be taken with alcohol. Once a week, the physical therapist comes in and brings a bit of good-natured cheer. Once a week the psychiatrist comes in and advises caution, not too much contact with the husband and child, and prescribes more drugs that he must certainly know she takes with the glugged merlot. Aside from a visit from a neighbourhood child whose family she's been watching, nothing much happens for more than 100 pages. I confess, I put the book down and might not have gone back but for this review. Other readers may do the same. Please slog on, there is a reason here.

The clues are all there, in the movies Anna watches. Laura, Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo and Rope. Devotees of Turner Classic Movies, like me, will get them all and that really does add spice to the narrative. Of course, Anna sees a murder, in the very home of the child who visited so sweetly. But everyone, including the child, says the perceived victim isn't dead. Anna, wrapped in a wine-stained bathrobe, slow from drugs and slugging wine, is hardly a believable witness. In fact, Anna doesn't even believe herself. Maybe it was just the booze and temazepam. At this point, the cop enters, sympathetic and kindly. "Call me any time." When she does, he comes and blasts her whole little existence wide open.

This is the revelation that most, if not all, readers will have guessed, but it works because of the slow buildup. Anna Fox is severely depressed, self-medicating with wine, which is another depressant – and the truth is, depression is depressing. The sleeping, slurping, self-absorbed, self-destructive Anna Fox was once fully alive and we learn how far she's fallen and how truly vulnerable she is. In Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart was in a wheelchair with nothing but a Graflex camera. Anna Fox can't blind an assailant with a Nikon. We know that someone is coming for her and the suspense ratchets up as her tenant moves out and she is alone and seems to be preparing her suicide.

I'm not about to go any further and spoil a really decent plot. I must say, however, that Daniel Mallory has said he suffers from bouts of severe depression and I believe him. This is one of the most realistic descriptions of the daily life of a depressed person that I've ever read, and as a character study it's great. And, yes, that epigraph is real and tells us all we really need to know about the book and the real plot line under the murder-mystery gilding. When all is said, we understand who Anna is and we hope she does make it. Which is all there is to say about a fine examination of a very interesting woman who became very real to me. (I do dispute some of her taste in film, though. Rope, Anna, honestly?)

Meanwhile, there's the Rear Window homage here with a bit of gender reversal. Anna obviously is Jimmy Stewart without the action, Dan the gorgeous tenant is the Grace Kelly pretty face without much to do in the story; there's the wisecracking physiotherapist and, while there's no modern equivalent of Thelma Ritter, Hollywood will find a wit. The scriptwriter is already typing and, truthfully, doesn't have to do much. Find the right A-list actress to play Dr. Anna Fox, and the story is over. I'm hoping for Kate Winslet as the Woman in the Window and I hope they shoot it in glorious black and white.

Margaret Cannon writes about crime fiction for The Globe and Mail.

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