The popularity of the adjective “Hitchcockian” in reviews of suspense fiction is a tribute to the way in which the films of Sir Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) have become synonymous with cunning puzzles, ratcheted tension and a psychological complexity (especially involving women) that grew partly from the director’s Catholicism.
His example stalks this month’s three choices – most directly The Woman in the Window (Harper Collins, 427pp, £12.99), a much publicised debut by AJ Finn, a pseudonym for a former New York publisher, Daniel Mallory.
Finn acknowledges inspiration from Hitchcock’s 1954 movie Rear Window in which James Stewart, a photographer confined to home by a broken leg, spots suspicious activity in an apartment opposite.
Seeking another reason for a protagonist who is unable to leave the house, Finn alights on agoraphobia. Anna Fox, a child psychologist, hasn’t left her building for 10 months, during which she has spent too much time drinking and thinking about the lives glimpsed though the windows of neighbours, especially the Russells – Alistair, Jane and their son, Ethan – who have just moved into a brownstone across the way. One day Anna sees something seemingly dangerous.
The trick in post-Hitchcock fiction is to channel the master’s spirit, while also incorporating plot devices that were unavailable in his time. Finn gains much fresh ground from new technology. Digital connection, we fascinatingly learn, has opened up the world of the agoraphobic. Anna has food, medication and clothes delivered by courier, maintains some therapy clients via Skype and has lively exchanges with other sufferers in a chat room called Agora.
Across 100 punchy chapters, Finn deals out satisfying surprises and reveals. The prose is sharply visual: someone scratched by a cat receives “two quick rakes north-south, east-west: a bright grid of blood sprang to the skin”. But the writer also makes smart use of the fact that it is easier in print than film to prevent the audience seeing certain things. A movie is in production, with the key decision for its makers being to what extent it should copy the shots of Rear Window.
Apart from Hitchcock, the other influential tributary running into The Woman in the Window is, as its title acknowledges, the line of fiction – headed by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train – that is rather brutally known in publishing circles as “fem jep” (an abbreviation of “female jeopardy”.)
In The Girl on the Train and The Woman in the Window, the narrator’s perspective on events is crucially restricted by, respectively, train speed/alcoholism and alcoholism/ agoraphobia. Those views, though, are wide-screen and crystal-clear in comparison with the field of vision allowed to the protagonist of Emily Koch’s If I Die Before I Wake (Harvill Secker, 312pp, £12.99). For many Catholics, the title will echo a prayer once commonly used to enforce children’s sense of mortality (“If I should die before I ’wake/I pray the Lord my soul to take”), although, for journalist Alex Jackson, the type of sleep and risk of death are beyond most human experience.
Following a fall while mountain climbing, Alex is submerged in the form of coma known as “locked-in syndrome”, in which the patient can see and hear but, until the condition is diagnosed, appears unresponsive to relatives and doctors. That adjective hovers again: Hitchcock would have loved the way in which Alex is able involuntarily to eavesdrop on conversations, gradually hinting that he has been the victim of something other than an accident. Cops, witnesses and suspects pass by his bedside.
Koch powerfully suggests the way in which voices and faces fade in and out of the patient’s narrow strip of consciousness. A crucial decision in fiction writing is point of view, and Koch, having found a striking angle, makes compelling use of it.
The premise of Gone Girl – that we may not know much about those we think we know best – is tensely extended in The Wife (Faber & Faber, 340pp, £12.99) by Alafair Burke, who specialises in extreme domestic scenarios that challenge readers to imagine themselves in a similar situation.
In Burke’s 2016 hit, The Ex, a lawyer is asked to defend her former fiancé on a murder charge. The Wife explores similar issues of trust under pressure. Jason Powell, a celebrity academic thanks to a bestseller on ethical economics, is accused by two students of inappropriate behaviour. His wife, Angela, the book’s main viewpoint, faces greater stress than most spouses in such circumstances because, in the past and under another name, she and her young son were involved in a headline controversy arising from her previous relationship.
Jason’s public disgracing may expose this to further scrutiny, potentially ruinous for all (as they now are) the Powells. Burke expertly controls the flow of revelations about both Jason’s present crisis and Angela’s past one in a novel that is thoughtful about the reasons, in a variety of situations, that people might lie. Here is another story that would have made a good Hitchcock film.