You couldn’t make it up. Or could you? The author who lied about everything
How the unravelling of Daniel Mallory's deception proved to be stranger than fiction
It’s the kind of plot that will make a fine film adaptation one day: the knotty tale of a charismatic, handsome young American who managed to charm and deceive everybody from Oxford dons to international executives; who propelled his meteoric rise in a notoriously closed industry by fabricating deaths in his family, faking qualifications, impersonating relatives, affecting foreign accents and even inventing his own cancer diagnoses.
And it just so happens to be true.
The career trajectory of Daniel Mallory, a 39-year-old book editor-cum-bestselling author, was already interesting. A little more than a year ago, eyebrows were raised in the publishing industry when word escaped that an impressive and sought-after debut thriller titled The Woman in the Window, written under the gender-neutral pseudonym AJ Finn, was in fact his work. Mallory went on to sell the novel in a two-book, $2m deal with his own publishing house, William Morrow. It quickly topped the New York Times bestseller chart, sold to a record-breaking 37 territories, and he spent much of 2018 charming literary festival crowds around the world.
Last week, however, as the jaw-dropping truth about Mallory’s backstory was uncovered in a lengthy exposé, he became the source of fascination of a different kind.
An article by Ian Parker of The New Yorker magazine reveals Mallory as a master of fiction – though primarily when it comes to the details of his own life. Over almost 12,000 words he is accused of spending decades spinning a web of lies both minor and major, including claiming in an essay submitted with his application to Oxford’s New College that his mother died from breast cancer and his brother by suicide (both are alive and well); boasting about having two PhDs to impress prospective employers (he doesn’t have any); telling a job interviewer that he had worked as an editor at US publisher Ballantine Books (he had been an assistant); claiming that The Cuckoo’s Calling, a thriller submitted pseudonymously by JK Rowling, had been published on his recommendation (it was not); and repeatedly telling colleagues on either side of the Atlantic that he had brain cancer (he did not).
To help the latter lie along, the article suggests Mallory sent e-mails impersonating another brother, Jake, to give updates on his surgery to his publishers at Little, Brown in London.
After the story went viral on Tuesday, Mallory released a statement confirming he never had cancer and that he’d lied in order to cover his mental health problems. “Like many afflicted with severe bipolar II disorder, I experienced crushing depressions, delusional thoughts, morbid obsessions and memory problems,” he wrote. “In my distress, I did or said or believed things I would never ordinarily say, or do, or believe – things of which, in many instances, I have absolutely no recollection. It is the case that ... 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 added that causing anybody distress was “never the goal”, but has yet to address the myriad other accusations he’s facing.
The reaction to Mallory’s unmasking has been varied. Many people, particularly outside of the publishing world, have relished the sheer audacity of his duplicity, as well as his well-publicised interest in deception. While at New College – where he did study for a time – he was obsessed with the psychological thriller novels of Patricia Highsmith, not least The Talented Mr Ripley, the story of a charismatic young American who pulls off a series of escalating confidence tricks. In an interview with The Guardian in 2018 (which now reads rather differently), Mallory elaborated on that admiration: “I think one of the reasons I was attracted to Highsmith is that most crime fiction is morally educative: morals will be upheld, justice will be doled out, wrongdoers will be caught and punished. But that did not happen with Tom Ripley,” he said.
“It fascinated me to see this character get away with stuff. It fascinated me more to find myself rooting for him.”
Inside the publishing world, however, not many people have been rooting for Mallory to get away with anything. Speaking anonymously, editors in London and New York confirmed that his reputation preceded him by the time The Woman in the Window was published. In The New Yorker it’s suggested that numerous rival publishing houses dropped out of the auction for the novel’s manuscript once “AJ Finn” was revealed to be the infamous Mallory. But they kept quiet.
Although rumours of Mallory’s imaginary brain tumour saga had Chinese-whispered their way around the industry for years, according to Neil White, an author whom Mallory signed to Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown, in 2011, opinions of him are still divided, even among those who weren’t exploited by his deceit.
“Views on Dan fall into three camps: those who met him a handful of times and found him charming and engaging, with no negative thoughts at all; those who worked with him and found him a liar and chancer, and not much of an editor; [and] those who haven’t met him but think the lies he has told are despicable, all the hallmarks of a narcissistic sociopath,” he says. “Bizarrely, all three camps are probably correct in their views.”
White falls into the first camp. Mallory was an enthusiastic champion of his work, and he “came across as a very nice guy, very easy to talk to, and made all the right fluffing-up noises” before signing White to a six-figure deal. Later, when Mallory left Little, Brown (the terms of his departure are covered by a non-disclosure agreement) for a new job at William Morrow, part of HarperCollins, in New York, White heard he’d been ill, but didn’t know what with.
“I didn’t think anything more about it until time moved on and I began to hear rumours about false claims of cancer and other unusual goings-on,” he says. “I did know that other friends from writing circles were less impressed, particularly by the false claims of cancer. I didn’t know whether they were just rumours but I understood their anger, particularly where they have been affected by cancer through the deaths of friends or family. But it always seemed to be ‘I’ve heard’, not ‘he told me’, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.”
Publishing is an industry that enjoys a proximity to showbusiness without having to endure its scrutinous spotlight. Mallory’s story is forcing it to look in on itself.
According to one US editor, his is not a case of Walter Mitty syndrome, but rather of a smart, talented man who exploited long-held weaknesses in the industry: “This is a world where people get on by knowing the right people and charming the right people, and whatever else he’s guilty of, he was very, very good at that.”
Others have suggested that the idea of charming (or lying) your way around an industry only works for a certain demographic: namely, privileged white men. In other words, as others struggle with impostor syndrome, a literal impostor was rewarded.
“This whole Dan Mallory situation is what we mean when we refer to the ‘glass elevator’,” tweeted Kurestin Armada, a New York literary agent. “Even though publishing is filled with women (albeit white women) at most levels, white men rocket to the top even with nothing of substance backing them up.”
Yet HarperCollins says it has not changed its plans to publish his second novel, and he will presumably be asked to write more, now his powers of imagination are even more famed. “Nothing will happen, nothing,” a US editor said. “This is not a MeToo thing, it’s gossip. He still wrote his book and it’s still a bestseller.”
Later in 2018, a film version of The Woman in the Window is due to be released. Adapted by Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts, directed by Oscar nominee Joe Wright and starring Amy Adams and Gary Oldman, it features an agoraphobic narrator who believes she has witnessed a crime through her kitchen window. I can think of a more gripping tale, and from the very same mind. I wonder who’ll play Mallory?
– © The Sunday Telegraph