Little White Lies

A couple of years ago, in the wake of thrillers with names like The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins) and The Woman in Cabin Ten (Ruth Ware), a new thriller appeared on the market and became an automatic best seller. It was The Woman in the Window by A.J. Flynn, a pseudonym for a man named Dan Mallory. Mallory was well known in the New York publishing circles, having worked as an editor in several of the large publishing houses and representing writers whose names those of us who read mysteries and thrillers would instantly recognize. This book soared up the best-seller lists. It’s been optioned as a movie.

The New York Times has written a profile of Dan Mallory. Mallory, who is described by several people in the article as handsome and charming, presents himself as someone who has overcome great hardships in his life. His mother, who raised him by herself, died of cancer and Dan nursed her during her illness; his brother John also died; Mallory himself had a brain tumor and/or a spinal tumor that required surgery; recovering from the surgery, he had an allergic reaction to some meds and experienced cardiac arrest. He currently lives with a mental illness. Overcoming these trials, Mallory went on to get two doctorates from Oxford, and worked on many famous books and even some successful screenplays. That’s what he says, anyway, or at least has said to various people at various times.

The New York Times reporter managed to interview both of Dan’s parents; his father was not absent and his mother didn’t seem to be very dead as she climbed out of her SUV in the family driveway, cradling a bag of groceries and refusing to be interviewed. The brother, who didn’t seem to be very dead either, refused to be interviewed too. Co-workers of Mallory in New York remember getting emails from Dan’s brother “Jake” while Dan was undergoing his surgery, and theoretically, according to friends and co-workers back in Britain, Jake would have already been dead by then.

There is no record that Mallory, who did attend Oxford, received any degree.

The tone of Ian Parker’s article is slightly admiring; like, “Wow, can this guy lie, or what?” And, to be fair, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen someone scam the publishing business, or academia, for their own financial advantage. Here’s what struck me; the article takes the tone of a Reader’s Digest “My Most Unforgettable Character” profile, rather than an exploration of what might be wrong with both academia and publishing, that these guys get jobs. In Mallory’s case, Mallory professed a love and admiration of Tom Ripley, the character created by Patricia Highsmith. It’s hard to resist the “talented Mr. Mallory” theme.

A couple of interesting points; not everyone was taken in by Mallory. Several co-workers told tales about how they doubted his stories. They even joked about it. No one confronted him, and it’s obvious why. First of all, he was vicious when he didn’t get his way, so people were wisely afraid of him. Secondly, the higher-ups who brought him in probably would not take kindly to being embarrassed by being confronted with the truth. There is some hint of this with the publisher he left, where there is a non-disclosure agreement, and the number of employers who declined to be interviewed.

But one point seems to be, if you’re male, white and good-looking enough, no one will ever do a real background check on you. No one will ever email Oxford and ask if you completed a degree there. They will take you at your word.

(There is an infamous case of a white woman pretending to be a woman of color and scamming the Spokane, Washington branch of the NAACP. She didn’t get a million dollar book/movie deal, though.)

I can’t help imagining the raft of follow-up questions (read: grilling) a black man with cornrows would get at a publishing house when he said he had a degree from Oxford, or, for that matter, a woman would. I don’t think it’s an accident that most of these frauds are white and male. It could be true (I kind of hope it is,) that there are dozens of brilliant women scam artists making tidy fortunes in the publishing business and they just aren’t as high-profile and rococo as Mallory. Honestly, however, I don’t think that’s the case.

Secondly, from the small sample of these cases I’ve read, these oh-so-clever hucksters are never clawing their way up from the working classes. Mallory was raised upper-middle-class, with two parents who did split up for a time when he was an adolescent (so the single-parent story is partially true). These lying men are invariably raised comfortably. I know we over-use the words “entitled” and “privileged” these days, but it really does seem that men like Mallory think they should just be able to have a degree from Oxford without having to do demeaning things like work for it. For them, the step from, “I wish I had an Oxford PhD,” becomes, “I got my PhD at Oxford” in about the length of time it takes to draw a breath.

But, all of Mallory’s engaging weirdness, and he is engaging, aside, don’t these high-profile businesses and schools do any background check? Years ago when I still worked at the county, we had an applicant we wanted to hire, and he had to jump through extra hoops because the out-of-state college where he had completed his BA had changed its name. It was similar to the change in California, from “[NAME] State” to “California State University at [NAME].” We cleared it up to HR’s satisfaction, but the position we were hiring him for didn’t even require a degree in the first place, and they still made us (and really, him) provide proof that it existed and he had that degree.

I guess, seriously, publishing is not as important as the public trust, so who cares if someone’s lying to you… but why don’t you care? Why wouldn’t you question the motives of someone who is lying to you from your very first meeting? And why, when these guys get uncovered, do they get even more attention lavished on them?

Patricia Highsmth’s Ripley, at the end of the day, is fiction. Mallory, who will probably go on to sell at least one more book based on his notoriety, created a fictional persona which he passed off as real. Highsmith entered into an agreement with readers; we knew we were getting fiction. Mallory lied and tricked people. Somehow, if you’re white and male, that’s becoming more and more acceptable. Why?

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3 Responses to Little White Lies

  1. Jana says:

    I hadn’t made the “Mr. Ripley” connection, but now I can’t unsee it. And I think you bring up some very good points about who else other than a white guy would have been able to get away with this level of deception (i.e., probably no one).

  2. Marion says:

    @Jana, I think this is the Old Boys’ Network in full swing. The assumption is that the one who looks like you shared the same experiences you did, so of course he did what he said he did. I just wish the people at the heart of these systems would do a bit of soul-searching, or at least a passing attempt as self-examination.

  3. Jana says:

    Agreed wholeheartedly.

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