Million-dollar author caught in web of lies

Ghost writer: Dan Mallory publishes his fiction under the pseudonym A.J. Finn.

Dan Mallory, writer of the bestselling thriller The Woman in the Window, has admitted to lying about having brain cancer — one of many deceptions he used to boost his career.

The Woman in the Window was a sensation. A violent and mysterious thriller built around an unreliable narrator, the book constantly keeps its readers guessing. Who did it? What can I believe? What is the truth?

The book brought its author, Dan Mallory, riches and fame. But now his reputation lies in ruin after a New Yorker article exposed him as a serial-liar — weaving tales of deception about his own life almost as extraordinary as his fiction.

Before releasing his first novel last year, Mallory had worked for a decade in publishing. On several occasions he told colleagues he was suffering from brain cancer, that his mother had died of cancer, and that his brother committed suicide. None of this is true.

“Money and power were important to him,” a former colleague explained. “But so was drama, and securing people’s sympathies.”

Indeed, many of those he told responded with compassion, and he rose quickly up the ranks in the publishing world. Others became suspicious as the lies appeared to snowball.

He also claimed to have a doctorate from Oxford University (he does not); that he had modelled for a major American fashion brand; that he appeared on the cover of Russian Vogue; and that he was friends with Ricky Martin.

As the scale of his deception was revealed this week, Mallory apologised, saying it was “never the goal” to “take advantage of anyone else’s goodwill”. He also pointed to a history of mental illness saying he was “utterly terrified of what people would think of me if they knew”.

But how should we respond to his actions?

According to the influential moral philosopher Immanuel Kant, lying can never be justified. He argued that an act is good only if it could become a universal law. It would clearly be bad if nobody ever told the truth, therefore lying fails this test.

More recently, the philosopher Sissela Bok has proposed a more flexible system. She calls it the “test of publicity”. This is a thought experiment in which everyone impacted by a particular lie is brought together on a panel. Arguments for telling the lie are then put forward, and a “jury” determines if it was justified.

So how should we judge Dan Mallory?

White lies

Harshly, some argue. As Douglas Murray points out: “how could Mallory possibly look a cancer sufferer in the eye” after this? How can the public trust him now? Of course, he is not a politician or a historian — but should all public figures account for their wrongdoing?

Then again, aren’t we all guilty of lying sometimes? Are those attacking Mallory merely hypocrites? The answer to these questions depends on the ethical perspective you have on lying. Is it always bad? And are some lies worse than others?

You Decide

  1. Is it wrong to lie?
  2. Should we stop reading Dan Mallory’s work?

Activities

  1. Time for a thought experiment! What would the world be like if nobody lied? Discuss this question in pairs and small groups, then share your ideas with the class.
  2. Write the opening chapter of a thriller novel. Try to make the setting, dialogue and action as dramatic as possible. What words and phrases can you use to build suspense? If you like, read out your chapter to the class.

Some People Say...

“A liar should have a good memory.”

Quintilian

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
On January 30, a PR firm working for Mallory released a statement on his behalf: “For the past two years, I’ve spoken publicly about mental illness: the defining experience of my life — particularly during the brutal years bookending my late twenties and mid-thirties […] 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.”
What do we not know?
A film adaptation of The Woman in the Window is due to be released later this year, starring Amy Adams and Gary Oldman. We do not know if this controversy will impact on the film’s release. A sequel to the book is also due to be released in 2020.

Word Watch

Sensation
It was the first debut novel to top The New York Times bestseller list in 12 years.
Riches
The book was initially sold to publishers in a deal worth $2 million. Mallory was also paid a further $1 million for the movie rights.
New Yorker
Read the comprehensive and fascinating piece by following the link in Become An Expert.
Ranks
At one point he was made executive editor at William Morrow. The New Yorker estimates that his salary was at least $200,000.
Oxford University
Mallory did study at Oxford, completing a Masters degree and beginning work on a PhD, which he did not finish.
Immanuel Kant
German philosopher (1724-1804).
Universal law
Something that is right in all situations anywhere in the world.
Sissela Bok
Swedish-born American philosopher and ethicist, born in 1934.