Dan Mallory, the fiction writer who made up stories about his own life

This time last year, Dan Mallory was the toast of the publishing world. Known to readers by his pseudonym AJ Finn, the American author had just released his debut novel, The Woman in the Window, a psychological thriller in the vein of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.

The book was widely lauded and landed cover blurbs from industry titans such as Stephen King and Gillian Flynn. “Unputdownable,” wrote King. “Astounding. Thrilling. Amazing,” raved Flynn.

It proved a hit with readers, too. It entered the New York Times bestsellers charts at number one and sold two million copies in eight months. “It’s a beautifully written, brilliantly plotted, richly enjoyable tale of love, loss and madness,” gushed the Washington Post. A film adaptation starring Amy Adams, Gary Oldman and Julianne Moore is due for release later this year.

Over the course of his career, Mallory is alleged to have fabricated illnesses, family deaths, and wildly embellished his resumé

The Woman in the Window is a pulpy tale of deceit and manipulation with an unreliable narrator to boot. In that sense, it has a lot of common with a lengthy exposé published in the New Yorker this week, which claimed the book’s author Dan Mallory is a serial liar. It described how he spent years weaving fantastical tales about his past and lying to colleagues to advance his career.

Prior to becoming a bestselling author, Mallory worked as an editor with several major publishing houses in London and New York, including Random House and Little, Brown. His most recent position was as executive editor with William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins. Over the course of his career, he is alleged to have fabricated illnesses, family deaths, and wildly embellished his resumé.

The New Yorker piece outlines how Mallory lied to colleagues in publishing houses about having an “inoperable brain tumour” as well as a “tumour in his spine”, only to later make a miraculous recovery. On multiple occasions, he is alleged to have claimed his mother was either sick, dying or dead, when she is still very much alive. He is said to have told an acquaintance that his brother had taken his own life.

Elsewhere, Mallory is said to have lied about holding a doctorate from Oxford. While applying for a publishing job in London, he apparently overstated his professional experience and landed a plum position many former colleagues thought was above his station.

Later, he allegedly earned a promotion after claiming to have received an offer from a rival publishing house.

Mallory is described by colleagues as being simultaneously 'charming and talented' and 'ruthless'. He is repeatedly likened to the protagonist in The Talented Mr Ripley

In the article, Mallory is described by colleagues as being simultaneously “charming and talented” and “ruthless”. He is repeatedly likened to the protagonist of the Patricia Highsmith novel, The Talented Mr Ripley. The comparison seems apt, not only because of the parallels in behaviour, but because Mallory is known to admire Patricia Highsmith and claimed to have written his dissertation on her work.

The story is littered with curious coincidences like this. For instance, it alleges that Mallory claimed to have a doctorate from an unnamed American university for research into Munchausen syndrome, a mental illness in which a person feigns physical and mental ailments. Furthermore, the article notes striking similarities between the plot of The Woman in the Window and that of a 1990s thriller starring Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter. The name of that film? Copycat.

In a statement released on his behalf to the New Yorker, Mallory acknowledged that he had fabricated multiple stories over the course of his career and attributed his behaviour to a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder. Some, however, have raised scepticism that the behaviour can be directly linked to bipolar II, with one acquaintance pointing out that the stories he told were “singularly advantageous to his career”.

“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,” Mallory told the magazine.

He stated that his mother’s battle with breast cancer was the “formative experience of my adolescent life” and that he had spent years feeling “intensely ashamed of my psychological struggles”. He said he worried about what people would think of him if they knew of his internal struggles.

“Dissembling seemed the easier path,” he concluded.

Dan Mallory has been likened to the protagonist in The Talented Mr Ripley, played in the film by Matt Damon
The Talented Mr Ripley: Jude Law and Matt Damon in the film of the novel

The story has rocked the publishing world and left many questioning how one man could execute such an elaborate deception without once being pulled up or caught out. For many, the behaviour seems at odds with Mallory’s charming, good-looking facade.

Irish author Liz Nugent first met Mallory before The Woman in the Window was published.

“My own experience of him was really nice,” she recalls. “I met him first in New York, six months before he was published. We had read each other’s books and we had corresponded a little. I had given him an endorsement quote and he offered me one for mine.”

By the time her next book was due to be published in the United States, The Woman in the Window had become a sensation, and Nugent was reluctant to approach him for another quote.

“But he wrote to my editor and said, ‘Would Liz Nugent like a quote?’ which is just unheard of because the scramble to get an endorsement quote is probably the most humiliating part of the publishing business for a writer. You have to write to writers who are more famous and better known than you and ask them to read your book and, if they like it, say something nice about it.

“It’s a ritual humiliation we all have to go through, but he offered. That was extraordinarily nice of him.”

The relationship didn’t end there. When Mallory visited Ireland last year to take part in a public interview with broadcaster Rick O’Shea in Eason, he invited Nugent to appear on the panel alongside him.

Nugent notes his support of the campaign to get the late author Emma Hannigan to number one on the bestsellers list, following Hannigan’s announcment that she was suffering from terminal breast cancer. At the time, The Woman in the Window was sitting pretty atop the Irish bestsellers chart. Nugent had sent a tweet imploring her followers to buy Letters to My Daughters by Hannigan. Mallory happened to see the tweet and threw his weight behind the bid, ultimately knocking himself off the top spot. The gesture struck Nugent as kind and generous.

“He didn’t need to do that,” she remarks. “It was to his detriment that he did that.”

“I didn’t ask him to get involved. He just saw my tweet about it and retweeted it. I’m not saying he single handedly got her to number one but he certainly didn’t harm it. He definitely helped it.”

Following Hannigan’s untimely death on March 3rd, 2018, Mallory tweeted: “I was heartbroken to hear that Emma Hannigan had lost her valiant and inspiring battle with breast cancer. My deepest sympathies to her family and friends. Have just donated to @BreastCancerIre and encourage you to do the same.”

How does Nugent square the reports of Mallory’s behaviour with the man she knew?

“He didn’t tell me anything that wasn’t true,” she says. “He was just kind and decent and helpful, but I understand why people are very angry. I understand why people are angry about the mental health excuse. But I don’t think somebody who does that is altogether well.”

One of the main questions that has arisen from the saga has been why someone would feel compelled to lie, distort and exaggerate as often as Mallory did.

Having explored similar territory in her own novels, Nugent says she can understand the impulses behind such behaviour.

His lies got so big because he got away with it and kept getting away with it. Nobody called him out on it and that must have been addictive

“Because in my writing I write about the psychology of characters, I can kind of understand it,” she says. “It must be a little addictive. Who hasn’t lied to further their career? We have all embellished our CVs at some point.

“His lies got so big because he got away with it and kept getting away with it. Nobody called him out on it and that must have been addictive. It must have been a little like, ‘I got away with that one. What can I say next?’”

Psychotherapist Trish Murphy adds that lying is part of human nature, noting that some of us just engage in it more often than others.

“Rather than saying ‘How awful, how terrible,’ there is a truth that we are all on that scale somewhere where we do tell lies, some of them quite big,” says Murphy. “It’s not that we’re enormously different. It’s just that we’re not that good at it, and most of us draw a line because we know we won’t end up with any friendships or relationships.

“There are people who exaggerate and create stories, and I think it’s because they feel that, if they are themselves, it’s not enough or that it’s not interesting enough. There could be insecurity behind it.

“It’s highly possible that the people telling these lies are half believing them themselves. They tell them so often that it becomes a kind of narrative that they believe.”

As for why even his most improbable stories were taken at face value, Murphy says that it’s do with how we, as humans, are wired.

“We want to believe it,” she says. “We start from a naive place where we trust before we mistrust. It’s a good way to operate in life, but you will get caught out occasionally.”

Observers have viewed the story as a damning indictment of the publishing industry and its failure to hold Mallory to account. While many had reservations about Mallory’s conduct, few challenged or confronted him. Instead, he was consistently rewarded with promotions and sizeable paychecks.

Mallory’s book, written as AJ Finn, was a bestseller
Mallory’s book, written as AJ Finn, was a bestseller

The New Yorker article posits that his employers’ desire to protect him had something to do with the fact he was a skilled deal-maker with a roster of established authors. While he may have been workshy in other areas, he was most certainly an asset in this arena.

What do those working within the publishing industry make of the story? Neil Belton, publishing director with Head of Zeus, says he found the scale of the lies “extraordinary”.

“I have to say I felt slightly sorry for the guy. He is clearly in some ways ill and has a deep need to exaggerate and romanticise his medical conditions and force people to feel sorry for him, really. That someone so good-looking, talented and successful should feel the need to do that... there’s something very sad about that.

“The book may be a pastiche of many other novels and many other genres, but clearly he did write it himself and there are elements of his own Ripley-esque personality in it. What’s astonishing is that he can do something like that so successfully and yet be so insecure that he needs to dream up these Munchausen-like symptoms every step of his career. It’s baffling, really, but there it is.”

Publishing does attract outsize egomaniacs. There are a lot of scam artists in the industry who have never edited a book but want to be associated with the glamour of it

Belton adds that Mallory’s behaviour would not have necessarily made him an outlier in the industry.

“It does attract outsize egomaniacs. There are a lot of scam artists in publishing who have never edited a book but want to be associated with the glamour of it.”

“There are some really good people who are conscientious and spend many hours and days working on text,” says Belton. “Then there are people for whom it’s all power lunches with big-shot agents, doing big deals and getting their name in the paper. They love that sense of power and publicity and glamour. Mallory sounds like a really exaggerated version of a very familiar type.”

As for why the publishing industry regularly finds itself hoodwinked by liars and scammers? “There is a certain will to believe that takes over, which is why there have been so many scandals and invented stories that couldn’t be true,” he muses.

Other figures in the industry have marvelled at Mallory’s rapid ascent of the career ladder, despite having largely invented his qualifications. Nobody appears to have sought out references or evidence of his doctoral work. Instead he seems sometimes to have been hired because they liked “the cut of his jib”.

Some speculate that these hiring practices reflect a gender bias within the industry where men are promoted faster and earn more than women – even, apparently, when they lie.

“Dan Mallory is a spoofer, but he got away with it for so long because of an endemic problem, and that problem is sexism, racism and elitism in action,” says Sarah Davis-Goff of Tramp Press.

“As brilliant Picador editor Kishani Widyaratna pointed out on Twitter, it’s about men feeling like they can point to another man and feel they’re cut from the same cloth. Unfortunately there are a lot of opportunities for people to conflate their ‘gut feelings’ about talent with plain old prejudice. It filters through not just to being employed and promoted through the ranks, but to what’s being published and reviewed too.”

In the wake of the New Yorker investigation, publisher William Morrow pledged to stand by its author and former employee.

“Professionally, Dan was a highly valued editor, and the publication of The Woman in the Window – a #1 New York Times bestseller out the gate and the bestselling debut novel of 2018 – speaks for itself,” the publisher said in a statement.

Plans for a paperback release of The Woman in the Window and his second novel have not changed. The film adaptation is due to be released in October.

Nonetheless his reputation and credibility have suffered an almighty blow. Is there a path to redemption?

“The day before yesterday, I thought this will do his sales no harm,” says Nugent. “Yesterday I thought people were so angry, particularly people in the publishing business, and I thought, ‘Maybe his second book will be pulled.’ Then the Bookseller published an article saying that the publisher is standing by him.”

“You can’t argue with the sales. The sales are phenomenal. It’s the most successful debut in about 12 years or something. People are piling on now to say that the book was rubbish. I thought the book was good, and you can’t argue with book sales.

“I hope there is a way back from him, but I hope he learns from this, too. I’m sure he will.”