A.J. Finn's debut novel, The Woman in the Window, released at the start of this year but has stuck with us through hundreds of others as one of our favorite reads, landing at number six on our list of the best books of 2018. This Hitchcockian noir thriller has twists that will have you gasping out loud, and in the piece below, originally published on January 10, 2018, author A.J. Finn reflects on his influences and inspirations.
I blame Europe.
Exhibit A. The scene: New York, 1989. The cast: me, aged nine, and my parents, who disappear from this story early on. They’d gone shopping at a local mall, where, for want of a babysitter, they elected to drop me off at a movie theatre; “Find something to watch,” my mother instructed me. The options were limited: There was The Vanishing, a Dutch picture already acclaimed as one of the twentieth century’s most terrifying psychological thrillers, and… I don’t remember the alternative, actually. Trauma will do that to a kid.
The Vanishing is a movie with ice in its veins; no less than Stanley Kubrick deemed it the scariest film he’d ever seen. The story of a man whose girlfriend disappears from a rest-area gas station, it builds ineluctably towards a finale the critic Roger Ebert described as “horrifying but probably inevitable.” I’d go a step further: It is indelible—an ending you’ll never forget. No matter how hard you try.
And I tried hard. Yet for years the movie haunted me. I had experienced mystery storytelling before—already, like many young readers, I was devouring Agatha Christie—but The Vanishing exposed me to the singular sensations of suspense cinema.
It wasn’t just the Netherlands, mind you. Exhibit B: I began learning French at a very early age, and between lessons and classes would study the dialogue in French films—Louis Malle’s World War II story Au revoir, les enfants, for example, or the iconic nouvelle vague thriller Diva, in which a young courier in possession of a valuable cassette tape must outwit a posse of criminals. This is how by age eight I had picked up such useful expressions as “Hurry! The Nazis are coming!” and “Give us the tape, asshole, and we’ll let you live.” I was a delight at dinner parties.
Years later, as a teenager living down the street from an arthouse, I’d camp out in the front row every weekend and steep myself in film noir retrospectives, classic-movie nights, Hitchcock marathons… I chased Harry Lime through Viennese sewers in The Third Man. I watched the conspiring women of Les diaboliques drown a man in a bathtub. I boarded Nicole Kidman’s yacht in Dead Calm. And I checked into the Bates Motel with Marion Crane—who, like my parents at the mall, wound up making an early exit.
Classic moviemaking would inspire me as a writer two decades on. One night in 2015, while parked on my sofa watching Rear Window, I clocked a light in my peripheral vision: my neighbor across the street, switching on a living-room lamp. In accordance with New York City custom, I watched her for a moment as she settled herself in her armchair and aimed a remote at the TV. Behind me, Thelma Ritter spoke up: “I can smell trouble right in this apartment,” she chided Jimmy Stewart as he fidgeted in his wheelchair. “You look out the window. You see things you shouldn’t. Trouble.” When I turned back to the screen, she was glaring at me.
Interesting, I thought, how—sixty years later—I’m spying on my neighbors exactly as Stewart did his. Voyeurism dies hard. This incident inspired The Woman in the Window, my first novel—indeed my first attempt at fiction outside a university creative-writing course and a few alarming short stories produced during my youth. (It seems I was a troubled child. Again, I refer you to Exhibit A.) The novel is packed with references to suspense films from the forties and fifties, some classics, some less so. Readers needn’t know these movies in order to enjoy the book, although several of them—like Vertigo, Double Indemnity, and of course Rear Window—are as famous as any picture in cinema history.
The movie leitmotif, a sort of soundtrack to the action of the novel, enhances and enriches the atmosphere of mood and menace. That’s the hope, anyway. But it serves a second, subtler purpose: Some of these films provide clues as to the direction the narrative will take, while others are red herrings. If you’re familiar with, say, Gaslight, you might wonder whether some sinister external force is preying on the protagonist, an agoraphobe named Anna Fox. Those who have seen Rosemary’s Baby might cast a suspicious glance at her newly arrived neighbors, the Russells, who intrigue—and then obsesses—Anna. As for the disbelieving detective investigating a crime that might or might not have occurred? He recalls Dana Andrews’ skeptical cop in Laura. And so on.
To date, The Woman in the Window has been sold in 36 languages worldwide, with a movie adaptation in active development at Fox, to be produced by Oscar winner Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men, The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Grand Budapest Hotel) and written by Pulitzer winner Tracy Letts (August: Osage County). In meeting and speaking with these filmmakers, I’ve learned that they’re as passionate about classic cinema as I am; we admire the elements that distinguish the great noirs and the work of Alfred Hitchcock: three-dimensional characters; crisp, witty dialogue; plausible plot twists; pacing that accelerates as the story unspools; and a disinterest in gore and cheap shocks. These are all virtues I’ve sought to emulate in The Woman in the Window. I hope that readers will enjoy the book as they’d enjoy a rousing black-and-white movie. And although most of the directors, writers, and stars of these films are long gone, it can’t hurt for me to thank them for the inspiration, company, and nerve-shredding delight they’ve given me over the past thirty years.--A.J. Finn
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