It’s quite an accomplishment to write a psychological thriller these days. We’re so sophisticated, so jaded by edgy crime in fiction and movies, not to mention real life, that we’re suspicious when we’re told a new book‘s come along that’s a nail-biting page turner. Cynics that we are, we also tend to think that best-seller suspense tales must be contrived. But what debut novelist A. J. Finn does with “The Woman in the Window” is remarkable. He’s created a breathless, stunning twist-and-turn plot that cleverly relies on familiar scenarios, most of the Hitchcock kind, and builds the Hitchcock references into his own story.
His narrator, Dr. Anna Fox, is an agoraphobic shut-in Rear Window, Gone Girl, Girl on a Train thirty-something. An intelligent woman, a psychologist who’s had a breakdown, she’s separated from her husband and young daughter, though she talks to them regularly, and medicates herself. A lot – with Merlot and pills. Together. She passes time watching – and critiquing – old black and white classic noir, playing chess online and spying on her neighbors across the street, with a Nikon zoom lens.
The book’s opening line, part of Anna’s interior monologue, establishers her voyeurism: “Her husband’s almost home. He’ll catch her this time.” That’s the Millers from across the street. But a new family has just moved in, from Boston. Mother, father, adolescent boy, The Russells, Jane – yes, Jane Russell – her husband and their 16-year-old son Ethan. Anna spys on them as well. But one day, through the windows, she sees Jane stabbed to death. She doesn’t see who did it, and when the police come, they tell her that Jane is very much alive. As for Ethan, he secretly visits Anna and admits he’s scared.
Anna’s certainly aware of reality, but she’s also caught up by movies and all the drugs and alcohol she takes. She recalls film dialogue, Bogey for example asking Becall, “Don’t you get lonely up here?” And Becall answering, “I was born lonely.”
To herself though, Anna then mutters that she wasn’t born lonely, she was made lonely.
A handsome tenant who moves in to her basement of the building she owns complicates the plot. Like the Russells, he’s also from Massachusetts.
Short chapters headed with datelines end as cliff-hangers as the author deepens what the reader learns about Anna. Hints of adultery, a traumatic trip with her family in a snowstorm, her capacity to lie to her therapists and friends. Are you drinking, they ask. “No,” she replies, then “Yes” to herself. The reader likes Anna, though. She’s a fallible narrator but concerned about what she believes she saw, even if a compassionate police detective doesn’t believe her. Besides there’s young Ethan, who lets it drop that his father is violent.
Finn ingeniously misleads with delayed information and red herrings. He’s also inventive in creating metaphors for Anna’s depressed, pill-induced semi-hallucinatory state and restricting the reader’s point of view to hers. Though you may begin to suspect what is going on. Yes, at the end, you may find a flaw or two in the plot or characterization. But what a ride.