The standard line on The Woman in the Window, the best-selling new thriller from A.J. Finn (longtime mystery editor Dan Mallory under a gender-obscuring pen name), is that it is this year’s The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl: the un-put-downable literary thriller that lives and dies by its unreliable lady narrator.
But in many ways, The Woman in the Window shares more DNA with last year’s sleeper hit tale of trauma and recovery and redemption, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman — which is to say that its central arc is less about its murder mystery than about the main character’s psychological healing. Which is a very good thing, because the mystery here is just okay.
Like Girl on the Train, The Woman in the Window is about a woman who obsessively watches a neighboring family through their windows, and who believes she has witnessed a murder but can’t be quite sure that her recollections are correct, because she’s an alcoholic and was extremely drunk at the time. Here, the woman is Anna Fox, confined to her home, who thinks she sees her new neighbor in the Harlem brownstone across the street get stabbed through the chest with a letter opener.
And like Eleanor Oliphant, Woman in the Window revolves around a woman who has experienced something mysterious and devastating who responds by socially isolating herself, self-medicating with alcohol, and having emotionally vexed phone conversations with absent family members. Anna used to be a prominent child psychiatrist, but since her mysterious trauma — which I won’t spoil here — she’s been beset by crippling agoraphobia. Now she spends every day locked in her house alone, drinking and popping prescription pills, and watching her neighbors through her camera.
That last touch is less Eleanor Oliphant or Girl on the Train and more Rear Window, which is one of the movies that Woman in the Window heavily references throughout. The murder mystery here is a pure Golden Age of Hollywood pastiche, and part of the fun of it is playing spot-the-reference. Anna watches Gaslight, so who’s trying to convince her that she’s crazy? She watches Vertigo, so let’s look out for some doubled blondes. Her murdered neighbor is named Jane Russell, so where’s the equivalent of Jane Russell in disguise as Marilyn Monroe at the end of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?
The heavy referentiality here is good, propulsive fun, but it has the side effect of making the mystery more than a little predictable. It’s possible to read this book voraciously, in long, luxurious gulps, but you don’t necessarily do it to find out what happens next. You know what happens next. You’ve seen a movie in your life. You do it because you’re impatient for Anna to catch up to your omniscience and put together the pieces so she can see who’s been lying to her the whole time. As a result, the big reveal is a bit of a letdown. Where does Anna come off being so surprised by what you knew all along? Why do we have to sit through the big monologue from the revealed villain again?
More satisfying is the thread of Anna grappling with her agoraphobia. This story isn’t as witty and sparkling as its predecessor in Eleanor Oliphant, but it’s deeply felt — and the mystery of Anna’s trauma emerges in the book’s most chillingly horrifying set piece. You’ll see the reveal coming from a mile away, but it’s far, far more compelling on the page than any of the creepy jump scares that power the murder mystery.
The predictability isn’t all bad: Part of the pleasure of this kind of book is in observing an effective formula well-executed. And The Woman in the Window executes the formula it’s set out for itself with as much panache as any mad scientist. This is a book you can eat like candy.