The greatest thriller I have read this year is not a book. It’s a new article in the New Yorker by Ian Parker about the editor and author Dan Mallory, and it is filled with so many twists and turns, such scheming and brazen lies, that it eclipses fiction. It definitely eclipses Mallory’s 2018 novel The Woman in the Window — written under the pen name A.J. Finn — which is a competent but paint-by-numbers thriller that is substantially less interesting than Mallory’s real-life story appears to be.
Two years ago at a publishing conference, I watched an editor enthusiastically pitch the then-forthcoming Woman in the Window to a room full of booksellers and librarians. She was selling it as the work of a gifted mimic: What was incredible about this novel, the editor said, was that Mallory was so brilliant at taking on the voices of other people. She’d been sure the book was by a woman until she found out that it was actually by Mallory, her fellow editor at William Morrow.
But Parker’s New Yorker article suggests that Mallory’s skill at mimicry wasn’t confined to fiction. Over the course of the piece, Parker uncovers compelling evidence to suggest that Mallory essentially scammed his way to the top of his field, scattering lies willy-nilly about his tragic past, his glamorous education, and his failing health.
Here are the moments from the profile that I am most looking forward to seeing immortalized in the movie based on Mallory’s life that will surely follow:
- Mallory submitted The Woman in the Window for publication under a pen name. After he revealed his real name, in a sinister moment that foreshadows the twists to come, most of the publishing houses bidding on the manuscript dropped out of the auction. Apparently, Parker writes, they were unwilling to bet their resources on someone with the reputation Mallory had. The book was eventually sold to the imprint at which Mallory already worked as an editor.
- Mallory repeatedly told acquaintances that his mother was sick, dying, or dead, in a move that apparently dates back to his college admissions essays. His mother is still alive. Here’s what happens when Parker explains as much to an editor who bought an essay from Mallory about his mother’s tragic death:
I told Raine that Mallory’s mother was not dead. There was a pause, and then he said, “If she’s alive, he lied.” Raine underscored that he had taken Mallory’s essay to be factual. He asked me, “Is the father alive? In the account I read, I’m almost a hundred per cent certain that the father is dead.” The senior John Mallory, once an executive at the Bank of America in Charlotte, also attended the event at Queens University. He and Pamela have been married for more than forty years.
- While working as an editorial assistant for an editor of commercial women’s fiction at the beginning of his career, Mallory frequently suggested that he was too good for the gig. He would stay in the office late at night to work on his own writing on his boss’s computer, and there, Parker writes, Mallory seems to have developed a strange habit:
On a few occasions in 2007, after Mallory had announced that he would soon be leaving the company to take up doctoral studies at Oxford, people found plastic cups, filled with urine, in and near Linda Marrow’s office. These registered as messages of disdain, or as territorial marking. Mallory was suspected of responsibility but was not challenged. No similar cups were found after he quit. (Mallory, through a spokesperson, said, “I was not responsible for this.”)
- Mallory repeatedly claimed to have a doctorate from Oxford in English literature, where he says he wrote his thesis on Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and the great writer of con artists. He claimed to have a second doctorate from an American university in psychology with a focus on Munchausen syndrome, a mental disorder that leads a person to act as though they have a disease that they don’t really have.
Parker could find no evidence that Mallory ever earned a doctorate in psychology. Mallory did begin a master’s program in English literature at Oxford, but his professors say he had to withdraw partway through because he’d been diagnosed with brain cancer. Mallory now admits that he has never been diagnosed with any kind of cancer.
- The American-born Mallory eventually returned to New York, where he apparently reveled in British affectations like saying “loo” or “bloody.” He was “a grown man walking around with a fake accent that everyone knows is fake,” one of Mallory’s colleagues told Parker.
- Mallory’s colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic eventually received a series of emails from someone claiming to be Mallory’s brother Jake but who sure sounds a lot like Mallory himself, both in tone and in the tendency to spell “email” as “e.mail.” The emails explained that Mallory was in the hospital for surgery on his brain tumor, told numerous touching stories about how kind Mallory was being to the children at his hospital (“he wrote the little girl a story about a hedgehog in his nicest handwriting to show her how she could rebound from a bad experience”), and solicited well wishes and gifts.
An acquaintance says that when she later asked Mallory about Jake, Mallory replied that Jake had died by suicide. Jake is still alive.
- One of the authors that Mallory represents at William Morrow appears to have inserted Mallory into one of her books as a villain. (The character is charming, flattering, and tells everyone he’s dying of a disease he doesn’t have; later, he poses as his brother, Blake, as in rhymes-with-Jake.) She also appears to have hired a private detective to investigate Mallory.
Parker shows a literary agent who’s familiar with Mallory the author’s description of her Mallory insert. Of the character, the author writes, “One was left with the impression that every third or fourth word he uttered was a source of delight to him.”
“My god!” the agent replies. “That’s so good.”
- Much of the plot for The Woman in the Window appears to be drawn from a movie from 1995. It’s a thriller titled Copycat.
- Bits and pieces of The Woman in the Window also appear to be drawn from Mallory’s apparent experience as a con artist, in particular the villain’s ability to trick psychological professionals into misdiagnosing him. And Mallory already seems to be turning the experience of participating in this profile into copy. His next book, he says, will involve “a female thriller writer and an interviewer who learns of a dark past.”
The fact that Mallory got away with his schemes for so long points to publishing’s deep dysfunction
On the strength of Parker’s story, it’s tempting to like Mallory, or at least to respect his hustle. There is so much brio in his sheer commitment to his many apparent lies that it’s hard to avoid feeling delighted. He comes off like a classic con artist, as smooth and consistent as his beloved Mr. Ripley. It’s just fun.
“The con artist heist movie is the pleasure of seeing how clever people do clever things to earn a little slice of the pie,” said Tara Isabella Burton, a former Vox staffer and the author of a con artist novel, last summer. “There’s a vicarious pleasure: ‘Maybe if I were clever enough, I could get this thing that privilege does not allow me to have.’ It’s like a Robin Hood thrill.”
But Mallory’s story also points to part of publishing’s inherent dysfunction. Once he returned to the industry from Oxford, Mallory repeatedly lied about his qualifications, Parker reports, citing not only a doctorate from Oxford but also time working as a full-fledged editor rather than an editorial assistant. He appears to have made up a job offer from a competitor to finagle a promotion at work, and he covered his frequent absences with stories about his fictitious brain cancer.
In 2009, while in his early 30s, Mallory became an executive editor at William Morrow, earning about $200,000 a year. Entry-level publishing salaries at the time started around $27,000, meaning that Mallory seems to have essentially scammed his way to a salary almost 10 times his base pay.
According to Publishers Weekly, the workforce of book publishing in the US is 80 percent female. Yet women made up only 59 percent of management jobs in 2017 — a number that in itself reflects a major jump from 49 percent in 2016 — and the median salary for women in publishing is $60,000, compared to $87,000 for men. That means the majority of women in publishing are stuck in lower-level, lower-paid jobs, while men are able to climb the ranks with comparative ease.
And publishing is an extraordinarily white field. According to Publishers Weekly, it’s 86 percent white. People of color who work in publishing consistently describe an atmosphere of microaggressions and occasionally outright hostility in which they are expected to teach the entire industry how to be more inclusive.
In that context, Mallory emerges as less a Robin Hood and more as a kind of avatar for the privileged white man who scams his way to the top at the expense of other people who are almost certainly more qualified than he is.
And what did he do with that prestige? Well, according to Parker, he used it to harass his former co-workers.
Parker writes that after Mallory returned to New York, one of his ex-colleagues in London received a message from an anonymous email account calling her one of the “nastiest c*nts in publishing.”
Mallory denied writing the message.