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Reflections on my encounter with the charming Dan Mallory

Dan Mallory, aka AJ Finn. Photo/Alamy

He penned a bestselling thriller under a pseudonym, but as Michele Hewitson discovered, author Dan Mallory also proved himself to be a charmingly adept bullshit artist.

Here’s a plot for a really great thriller: a previously unknown book editor writes his first thriller, under a pseudonym, about a woman with mental illness who is an unreliable narrator, possibly. The Woman in the Window attracts a bidding war; he gets a two-book, US$2 million deal; a film is made, due for release in October, starring Amy Adams. The book is a bestseller. The author does the promotional circuit and book festivals around the world and he is really great at doing interviews. He’s as good as his book. He’s handsome, clever, funny and has lashings of charm. He also has a great backstory: he’s gay and bipolar and he’s made it. Everyone falls in love with him. Rachael King, programme director of the WORD Christchurch literary festival, where the author appeared in August last year, did. Actor Michelle Langstone, who interviewed the author for his WORD session, did. I interviewed him, by phone, for the Listener ahead of the festival and I did, too. It is very difficult to charm the socks off a journalist in a phone interview. I finished our interview sockless.

The author is American Dan Mallory. His pen name is AJ Finn. Mallory is quiet and private. Finn will tell you anything and everything. Some of it, it turns out, is true. Because here’s the twist in the plot of that really great thriller: Mallory said he had brain cancer, and survived it. He told people his mother had cancer and did not survive it. He said his brother committed suicide. None of these things are true. He told me his mother would be travelling with him to New Zealand. He joked: “Only one of us will make it back alive. She’s quite spirited.” This was quoted in a recent New Yorker investigation into who Dan Mallory/AJ Finn really is. I nearly fell off my chair. I couldn’t decide whether I had been duped, so I put one sock back on and continued reading.

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Mallory claimed he had two doctorates – one, from the University of Oxford, on the works of Patricia Highsmith; the other, from the psychology department of an American university, on Munchausen syndrome. So, you might say, both of these doctorates are on the nature of deceit. Mallory does not have one doctorate, let alone two. The plot of his book has “parallels”, the New Yorker notes, with a film starring Sigourney Weaver. It is called Copycat. His book is a homage to film noir, with which he is obsessed. Copycat is not mentioned. So, homage or heist? An elaborate joke? Or, as Langstone would muse, “… the most extraordinary piece of performance art”.

By now my mind is spinning. I phone Langstone. Her mind is spinning. She says, “Everything that we’re talking about is like a beautifully executed psychological thriller … it could be the most extraordinary and brilliant book.”

King didn’t want to talk about Mallory. She was quite upset and conflicted. She said, by email: “Dan was the perfect festival guest. He was warm and gracious in all my dealings with him, and he was generous with his time while he was at the festival, taking part in events that went beyond promotion for his book … He endeared himself to a lot of people. He did state at the time that mental illness has loomed large in his life and the New Yorker article confirms that.”

Mallory made a statement to the New Yorker, through a PR firm, which, in brief, said he invented a physical illness to cover up his mental illness. “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.” He has since gone quiet. I phoned and left a message asking him to call me, without any hope that he would. I said, a bit plaintively: “I named your plant!” He told me he lived alone except for a pet plant. I asked if it had a name and when he said that it didn’t, I suggested Roger was a good name for a pet plant. He loved that, he said, and that he was going to go right out and get a little name tag for the plant. Does he even have a plant? Do I want to take the name back? I don’t know.

I went back through my notes. I can’t find anything that appears to be a direct lie, except by omission. I mentioned his Highsmith doctorate and he didn’t correct me. Langstone says he “danced” around this with her, too, and moved the conversation on.

A senior publishing executive contacted by the New Yorker said, “My God! I knew I’d get this call. I didn’t know if it would be you or the FBI.” Were we conned? Or tricked? Langstone, like me, is trying to work this out. “I don’t know the answer to that because I don’t know how much of what I was presented with was Dan and how much of what I was presented with was AJ Finn. He drew a very distinct line between the two of them … There’s a really interesting sense of dislocation, isn’t there, to be able to lift outside of yourself and move between two different people and two different truths.” She says: “I still really like Dan. I adored my time with him.”

But who did she, and many others, spend time with? And does it matter if a novelist, whose job it is to make things up – and to make people believe his fiction – makes things up?

“I wish I had some sort of clarity for you,” says Langstone. But it is the sheer murkiness that provides the frisson. He’s Tom Ripley, Langstone says. “He’s actually become a Patricia Highsmith character. All of that masquerading and pretending … I find that quite dazzling and also really sad.” It is our confused feelings about the charming chancer, Tom Ripley, which makes him such an enduring and oddly endearing character. Langstone’s first thought about Dan Mallory was, “I hope he’s okay.”

His publishers are sticking by him. His second book, he has said, will involve “a female thriller writer and an interviewer who learns of a dark past”. Life, as we like to say, is stranger than fiction.

This article was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.