Dan Mallory’s debut was not an amazing thriller, but his rise in the publishing world is
If this post was a work of fiction, the serendipity I’m about to describe would either be essential to the plot, or bad writing. But, as it happens, I finished up the audiobook version of the much-ballyhooed literary thriller “The Woman in the Window” this morning while trying to wake up after consuming too much beer and brisket during a rather meh Super Bowl.
After the wonderful narration by Ann Marie Lee concludes, there is a short interview with Finn, whose name in our version of reality (that’ll make more sense to you in about five minutes) is Dan Mallory. Lee introduces Mallory as Finn and his real name is not mentioned. What is mentioned is Mallory’s love of thrillers and how Gillian Flynn’s 2012 outlier “Gone Girl” changed the genre (I agree with this and have said as much to folks with whom I discuss thrillers and the current market). Hitchcockian and noir films are also mentioned. He “feasted” on them, Mallory, as Finn, said.
A bit more to the point of this post is Mallory’s mention of the severe depression he’s struggled with for his entire adult life. That experience helped shape his protagonist in “The Woman in the Window,” the agoraphobic child psychologist Anna Fox.
“As a depressed person, I’ve spent many years on fairly intimate terms with grief, misery, and fear,” Mallory, as Finn, said in the interview, which ended the audiobook produced by Mosaic Audio and released Jan. 2, 2018.
“But there’s a silver lining — these struggles have helped me develop a strong sense of empathy, and I’ve tried to bring those experiences, and that hard-won empathy, to the character of a complicated woman who has lost all belief in the possibilities of life.”
Pay attention to that quote, class. It gets a little more confusing from here, and you may have to refer to your notes. You’ll also want to remember that Mallory said he took “exactly one year to write” the novel. Another fact to note: Mallory said he had a very detailed outline from which his characters didn’t deviate during his writing process.
After the audio ended, I checked my Twitter notifications, and from there refreshed my feed to see what the Twitterverse was discussing after Tom Brady and Bill Belichick cemented their godlike gridiron statuses.
One of the first tweets I saw was from Joyce Carol Oates.
I was intrigued, like many writers — especially journalists — would naturally be when encountering a possible case of plagiarism. I dug deeper into Oates’ thread.
That, of course, led me to the New Yorker magazine profile of Dan Mallory, also known as A.J. Finn, who at one point in his bizarre literary life also wrote as his younger brother Jake, whose real name is John.
Confused yet? As you can see, The New Yorker’s web headline is appropriate for the piece: A Suspense Novelist’s Trail of Deceptions.
Before reading the piece, which took me several hours because of my scattered day and the incredible depth of the profile, I was going to write a review of the novel, as I sometimes do on this site. The review was going to be mostly positive. I enjoyed the basic premise, and parts of the novel were beautifully written and made some good use of metaphors.
I was going to mention some negatives, too. While I know I read novels in this genre through a different lens than most, I still find ones that surprise me, much to my delight. However, many of the main plot points of “The Woman in the Window” were fairly plain to see to everyone but the protagonist. That’s because Dr. Fox is constantly drunk and mixing her prescription drugs with that alcohol. I did not love that plot device in Paula Hawkins’ debut “The Girl on the Train,” and I disliked it in Finn’s debut, albeit a little less.
I also felt like the novel was a plot conceived for the sole purpose of fitting into the same category as Flynn’s masterpiece and Hawkins’ successful tome. It felt derivative in that sense. (I haven’t seen the film “Copycat” — again, were this post a work of fiction, I could not get away with naming the film that was basically plagiarized something so on-the-nose as “Copycat” — but I will do so tomorrow and write a side-by-side comparison for everyone).
I went back and read Oates’ review for The New Yorker after reading the profile on Mallory. I agree with her ultimate remarks: “Most improbable, Anna consumes cases of Merlot and an incapacitating quantity of opioids. But perhaps this is why a protagonist who is preoccupied with a mystery is so slow to figure out an explanation that will long have been obvious to readers.”
I was going to write something to that effect, likely an echo of my thoughts of “The Girl on the Train.” But, after absorbing the revelations in The New Yorker piece, I had much more to say about the book and its now notorious author.
What follows is a more concise, linear account of Dan Mallory’s life as told by The New Yorker, followed by some of my own analysis.
Dan Mallory, 39, came from money through his grandfather and parents. His childhood began on Long Island but ended in North Carolina. During that time, his mother was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. As we could all expect, the experience of watching his mother battle the awful disease left a huge mark on Mallory’s psyche. But, he was determined to make lemons out of the proverbial lemonade that was his mother’s tragic, untimely death.
The major problem with doing so, though, was that his mother did not die. In fact, Ian Parker, who wrote the profile for The New Yorker, spoke with Mallory’s mother, Pamela, in Amagansett, Long Island. After what she said to Parker, my guess is she knew her son had told more than a few people she was not successful in fighting off cancer.
Dan Mallory, on using his mother’s death after battling breast cancer to get into Oxford. His mother did not die, but instead won her fight with cancer.
“Make suffering worth it. When the silver lining proves elusive, when the situation cannot be helped, nothing empowers so much as working for one’s own advantage.”
But when it came to applying for his post-graduate studies, after graduating from Duke University in 2001, Pamela Mallory’s death was used as a way into the hearts of Ivy League. Though he was turned down by Princeton for undergraduate studies, faking his mother’s death worked on the folks at Oxford. He studied abroad there while at Duke, then went back for a master’s, which he received in 2004 despite traveling frequently to the U.S. He said he had medical issues to deal with. Being the courteous people most of us strive to be, the professors left it at that as long as he did what he needed to graduate.
Mallory began his working career where many writers do: at a publishing house in New York. He was hired to be the assistant to the editorial director at Ballentine Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, which is owned by German media conglomerate Bertelsmann and British publisher Pearson LLC. His boss at Balentine was Linda Marrow. In and around her office in 2007, after Mallory said he was leaving Ballentine to pursue a doctorate at Oxford, employees said they would sometimes find cups filled with urine. He has denied this marking of territory.
That’s where Mallory’s story starts getting even more bizarre.
Mallory did begin doctoral studies in Oxford. He told people he was working on a dissertation of Patricia Highsmith, author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Less than two years into what is usually at least a three-year process, Mallory began signing emails as Dr. Daniel Mallory. He later told people he also had a Ph.D. from an American university in psychology for studying Munchausen Syndrome (again, if this were fiction, I could not get away with such an on-the-nose detail). He would introduce himself as a “double-doctor.”
As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, Mallory did not get his doctorate from Oxford, nor from anywhere in the United States. He did, however, begin doctoral work at Oxford. Mallory’s doctoral supervisor at Oxford said he was “very sorry that illness interrupted (Mallory’s) studies.”
Mallory had already mentioned to some folks in the academic and literary world he’d battled brain cancer. Plus, you may remember his frequent trips to the U.S. when pursuing his master’s at Oxford. This may or may not have been true. After you continue reading, you, like me, will likely be disinclined to believe Mallory’s brain cancer story.
After leaving Oxford, Mallory was hired as an editor at Sphere, a Little, Brown imprint for commercial fiction (which is where the thriller genre resides), in London. He was a young professional hungry to climb the literary ladder. He was promoted quickly after receiving a competing offer from another London publisher. The other publisher has denied offering Mallory a position.
By this time, he had also made his brain cancer diagnosis public knowledge. It was a brain tumor, one that was inoperable and was going to kill him in about 10 years (that’s a noir-style, slow-burn ticking clock if I’ve ever heard one). Mallory left Little, Brown in August 2012, but not before securing another job. He would now be an executive editor at William Morrow and Company, an imprint of HarperCollins, in New York. He was just about my age, 33, reportedly making $200,000 a year and living in midtown Manhattan.
He was also reportedly battling an inoperable tumor that would kill him after making only another $1.4 million or so. Only this time the tumor was on his spine, and, it turns out, it could be operated on.
A former colleague of Dan Mallory’s, to The New Yorker
“There’s a horror movie where all the teachers in a school have been infected by an alien parasite. The kids realize it, and of course nobody believes them. That’s what it felt like.”
Enter Jake Mallory, Dan’s brother. After Dan Mallory stopped coming into the office in the winter of 2012, Jake emailed old colleagues of Dan’s in London (remember, Dan Mallory had taken a new position in New York). The email said he would be going in for surgery. The email was sent on Feb. 12, 2013, and said Dan would have to have a tumor removed the next day. It reminded folks of his hard childhood and how lonely he sometimes felt. He urged his former colleagues to keep them in their thoughts and prayers.
The next day, Jake wrote a similar email to Dan’s New York colleagues. This email told of impending surgery to remove a spinal tumor. No calls for thoughts and prayers, but the email did include a description of a machine that Dan Mallory would have to have mounted on his body, turning him into a cybernetic organism.
This serial portrayal of spinal surgery, a recovery, a near-death cardiac incident, and more recovery, went on for months. It was mostly Jake Mallory emailing the literary world, but Dan Mallory’s email accounts were sometimes used. Jake Mallory returned emails and engaged with witty repartee with at least one person.
Jake Mallory, whose legal name is John Mallory, never wrote any emails about his brother’s harrowing battle with cancer. They were almost certainly written by Dan, though he has denied it. Dan later told an acquaintance that Jake had committed suicide. Jake Mallory is now 35 and, like his and Dan’s mother, very much alive.
Time for a short subplot. Author Sophie Hannah met Dan Mallory in 2013 after he bravely fought off fake spine cancer. Mallory helped her secure an incredible opportunity to be the first to take over writing Agatha Christy’s incomparable character Hercule Poirot. To be able to write for intellectual property like Agatha Christie, one of the godmothers of detective fiction, is an amazingly high honor.
Hannah’s second Christie continuation novel, “Closed Casket,” is a thinly veiled Dan Mallory character study. In the novel, a charming man named Joseph Scorcher claims to have a terminal disease. He is revealed to have been lying about that disease during the autopsy. Poirot later meets an American doctor who years before had met Scorcher at Oxford — OXFORD! — who had described the disease to the disbelieving doctor. This doctor had also met a person who claimed to be Scorcher’s brother. The brother, who is revealed to have been Joseph Scorcher himself, went by Blake. BLAKE!
“You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This Poirot’s About You.”Private working title of Sophie Hannah’s second Agatha Christie continuation novel, “Closed Casket.”
Hannah never directly admitted to this to The New Yorker, though she did admit to some parallels, and the private working title for “Closed Casket” was “You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This Poirot’s About You.”
Like the main plot, this subplot gets stranger.
If we are essentially accusing Mallory of ripping off a 1990s film, we are also going to accuse Hannah of being a serial plagiarist of Mallory’s life. In a non-Christie novel, Hannah writes about a psychopath named Tom Rigbey — Remember, Mallory is a huge Highsmith fan, and her famous protagonist is Mr. Tom Ripley — who, like Mallory, loves bull terriers. Hannah also recently co-wrote a musical mystery about a successful romance novelist who feels her publisher gets neglectful after writing a bestseller of his own.
Then there’s the strange case of the novelist who hired a private investigator to spy on her editor. Hannah had told colleagues she, like most others, was skeptical of Mallory’s medical diagnosis. When he went to England, reportedly for treatments, she blogged about hiring a private investigator to go to England look into … what, exactly, remains a mystery. Parker, in his New Yorker piece, says he is convinced it was to see if Mallory was seeking cancer treatments. Parker said Hannah, who denied that claim, failed to produce easily producible evidence for her alternate story about the use of her private dick.
Dan Mallory returned to work at William Morrow in the Spring of 2013. His work schedule remained irregular. It went on like this for quite some time, but Mallory continued to do his job and some of the people he interacted with had positive things to say, including Hannah.
Then, according to the official account, Mallory decided to begin working on “The Woman in the Window” in the summer of 2015 after rewatching the film “Rear Window” — which he doesn’t replicate with the apparent exactitude of “Copycat” and pays homage through protagonist Anna Fox’s love of Hitchcock movies — during a few weeks at home adjusting to new medication.
He also said he recognized that “Gone Girl” had created a place for a story such as his to exist in the market. He has said he chose the pen name A.J. Finn because it would look better than his own, longer name on small screens, the kind people watch when they watch a movie in their homes on Netflix. He then wrote a 7,500-word outline for the novel that he showed to an agent friend, who encouraged him to keep going.
All of that could be true, based on what we know about Mallory. But what comes next is debatable.
After showing the agent his outline, he said he worked for a year at nights and on weekends on “The Woman in the Window.” But Mallory had treated and spoken about his novel as a high-end business opportunity. So, one has to look at the dates of the novels to which his tome is most often compared: “The Girl on the Train” and “Gone Girl.”
The hardcover version of “Gone Girl” was released in May 2012. It was an almost instant global success, critically and commercially. The novel forever changed the suspense and thriller genres. In fact, I and many others argue it sparked the subgenre of “domestic thriller.” It caused me to read Flynn’s other novels — “Dark Places,” which, like “Gone Girl,” was later made into a movie — and her debut, “Sharp Objects.” Her debut helped inspire my debut novel, and it was turned into an HBO limited series of the same name last year.
Three months after “Gone Girl” was released in hardcover, Dan Mallory left a London publishing house where he’d already developed a … let’s call it at least slightly negative … reputation to work at another. He then soon comes up with a fantastical reason to miss months of work, a reason that gives him a reason to not come in regularly for the ensuing years. During those ensuing years, in October 2014, the film adaptation of “Gone Girl” is released and is another smashing success.
“The Girl on the Train” was released just a few months later in January 2015. It was another commercially successful novel and cemented the fact that the door opened by Flynn was still open and would remain so for the foreseeable future.
Then, just a few months after that, Mallory — who by now had been analyzing suspense and thriller fiction for about 15 years — has come up with an incredibly extensive outline, one that’s just about as long as the New Yorker profile that inspired this post. Mallory also has a pen name that’s fit for the screen and has a protagonist whose name he made sure was easy to pronounce in many languages, for the movie adaptation, of course.
Could it possibly be that, after seeing what happened with “Gone Girl,” Mallory decided to take time to work on something similar? Possibly he then tried the idea out on some folks who didn’t like it, or just ran into plain-old writer’s block and couldn’t figure out how the story should go.
Is it then possible that he saw what happened with “The Girl on the Train,” then rewatched “Copycat” rather than “Rear Window” — or both, or perhaps he just remembered both — then dusted off parts of the novel he started writing, turned it into his outline, and decided to finish the story after getting the positive feedback from his agent friend?
This is speculation on my part, though former colleagues told The New Yorker they, having noted his work absences, have been skeptical of Mallory’s writing timeline.
The top book on The New York Times bestseller list in early September 2016 was “The Girl on the Train,” and the film adaptation was released in early October. In the intervening weeks, on Sept. 22 and 23 of 2016, a PDF version of “The Woman in the Window” was hitting the inboxes of acquiring editors in New York and London.
Mallory said he chose his pseudonym so that when his book was out on submission, and during the ensuing auction for the North American rights, those editors could look at the novel objectively and not know it was him or that he was in the business. In hindsight, many don’t believe Mallory. I can’t help but notice the similarity between Flynn and Finn.
When the auction for his novel got to $750,000, the fact it was written by Mallory was revealed. Some publishers dropped out, including his former employer, Little, Brown. Mallory’s current bosses at William Morrow bought the book for a cool $2 million, and Fox 2000 got the movie rights.
Mallory stayed on at William Morrow for another year, but also set up a company under his pen name. He has also toured and done all the things a millionaire author does.
But before he sold his book, about the time he said he was writing it, Mallory was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. Doctors who spoke to Parker for The New Yorker said that diagnosis would not explain some of the more narcissistic pieces of the above story, and absolutely can’t explain him ripping off “Copycat” and being so derivative in his story.
Dan Mallory, through a public relations firm, to The New Yorker.
“With the benefit of hindsight, I’m sorry to have taken, or be seen to have taken, advantage of anyone else’s goodwill, however desperate the circumstances; that was never the goal.”
The next three paragraphs are a statement given to The New Yorker a few days before publication of Parker’s profile:
On January 30th, a public-relations firm working on Mallory’s behalf provided The New Yorker with a statement from him: “For the past two years, I’ve spoken publicly about mental illness: the defining experience of my life—particularly during the brutal years bookending my late twenties and mid-thirties—and the central theme of my novel. Throughout those dark times, and like many afflicted with severe bipolar II disorder, I experienced crushing depressions, delusional thoughts, morbid obsessions, and memory problems. It’s been horrific, not least because, in my distress, I did or said or believed things I would never ordinarily say, or do, or believe—things of which, in many instances, I have absolutely no recollection.”
He went on, “It is the case that on numerous occasions in the past, I have stated, implied, or allowed others to believe that I was afflicted with a physical malady instead of a psychological one: cancer, specifically. My mother battled aggressive breast cancer starting when I was a teenager; it was the formative experience of my adolescent life, synonymous with pain and panic. I felt intensely ashamed of my psychological struggles—they were my scariest, most sensitive secret. And for fifteen years, even as I worked with psychotherapists, I was utterly terrified of what people would think of me if they knew—that they’d conclude I was defective in a way that I should be able to correct, or, worse still, that they wouldn’t believe me. Dissembling seemed the easier path.”
He continued, “With the benefit of hindsight, I’m sorry to have taken, or be seen to have taken, advantage of anyone else’s goodwill, however desperate the circumstances; that was never the goal.”
I can see how bipolar II helps explain the urine cups and the charming persona that seems to conflict with his hiding out from the world and saying it’s for physical, rather than emotional, reasons.
Perhaps one of the parts of Mallory’s story I believe most is that he was finally able to write “The Woman in the Window” — a work of fiction crafted very specifically by an industry insider to do exactly what it did — after finally getting the correct kind and/or dosage of medication.
After finishing The New Yorker‘s profile, and Oates’ old review in the magazine, I wanted to see what major news outlets had been duped by Mallory. As it happens, the biggest example is none other than The New York Times which, while not a direct competitor to The New Yorker, is not exactly a friend of the newsmagazine.
The profile, written by Keziah Weir in January 2018, had the web headline: Your Book Editor Just Snagged Your Spot on the Best-Seller List.
The Times had a more detailed explanation of how Mallory developed his pseudonym: “Mr. Mallory had always planned to submit the manuscript under a pseudonym, which is a mash-up of his cousin’s name, Alice Jane, plus the name of another family member’s French bulldog.”
That may be true, but I bet — and would argue with him to his face — that he chose to name himself after that particular French bulldog because it sounds like Flynn.
In the Times piece, Mallory gave yet another explanation for why he wrote under a nom de plume:
“I felt it would be disconcerting for my authors to wander into a bookshop and see their editor’s name writ large across a hardback,” he told the Times.
The article also says Mallory has his doctorate from Oxford, which we now he doesn’t. That’s a factual error I’m sure the Times will correct. When I first published this post, at about 11:55 p.m. Feb. 4, 2019, there was only one correction on the article.
The story had originally had a typo in the name of the film. The name of that film is “Gaslight.” Not as accurate as “Copycat,” but in this story — which I honest to goodness didn’t make up — that kind of symbolism fits right in.
Dan Mallory really did not have a difficult childhood. Yes his grandfather had money, but his father had a very successful career at Bank of America, where he was (eventually) a Managing Director. Money was never a problem.
I was referring to his mother’s battle with cancer, something that (even though she beat it and he did the heinous lying about it later) surely had a serious negative impact. My mother had a bout with thyroid cancer, which is generally not fatal and I was in college. It still tore me up, so I can’t imagine what a mother having late-stage breast cancer would do to a younger teenager. But, I was unclear about that in the post, so I will edit and clarify accordingly. I appreciate you pointing that out to me.