Who Is Maud Dixon?
by Alexandra Andrews
Little, Brown & Co.
336 pp. $28
Publication date: March 2, 2021
I imagine many people have often said “I wish I had his/her life” at a low point when feelings of envy and jealousy often get the better of us. Count yourself lucky if you’ve been perfectly satisfied with your life in comparison to anyone else, especially someone much more successful in a career or wealthier or more attractive or anything that most people perceive as being the hallmark of what leads to happiness. The rest of us have been there. Dreaming of a life better than the one we have, hoping for the one we know we deserve.
Florence Darrow, the protagonist of Who Is Maud Dixon? (2021), is such a person. With dreams of being a successful writer but not quite brave enough to take the plunge she has consigned herself to working as a lower echelon assistant editor at a high profile publishing house and is surrounded by people who she perceives as better than her – more informed, more sophisticated, more intelligent and hence more successful. Everything she experiences passes through a filter of her inexperience, her Floridian background cursing her and leaving her in the wake of faster moving, hipper co-workers speeding through the fast lane of a Manhattan lifestyle she had only dreamed of back in Port Orange in her teen years. She just can’t keep up. Each day reveals she knows little, lives a shallow too safe life, while her co-workers manage to see all, know all and take everything they want with ease.
Florence is going to try her hand at taking what she wants no matter what. She has no idea what awaits her.
Through a series of embarrassing choices that recall some of the worst revenge stories of the early months of the #MeToo rage Florence loses her job only to land at the feet of her idol – the mysterious Maud Dixon, bestselling novelist whose pseudonym has never been penetrated. Now Florence is employed by the real Maud Dixon -- Helen Wilcox -- and she is in awe of the woman behind the pen name. As unfettered and opinionated as anyone Florence has worked with Helen is sort of an unimaginable caricature of the independent woman. She lives her life large and damns anyone who settles for less: “Middle categories are for middling people” she tells Florence after denouncing the male species with this glib diatribe: “Men are blunt objects. There’s no nuance there.” Within weeks on the job ostensibly a mere transcription gig, turning manuscript into digital pages, Florence finds herself completely trusted by Helen. She is astonished as she is given access to not only the handwritten pages of Helen’s upcoming novel but her bank and email accounts. Even more unexpected Florence is asked to pretend to be Helen on occasion when her employer can’t be bothered to answer business emails, like the never-ending barrage of demands from her literary agent who wants to see the first chapters of the new book. It’s only the beginning of a shift in identity and a thirst to become a successful writer at any cost.
Who is Maud Dixon? has rightfully been compared to Patricia Highsmith though it discards Highsmith’s penchant for primarily male dominated storylines for an nearly all-female cast. Still, the comparison couldn’t be more apt. It’s one of the few contemporary suspense novels I’ve read that is all deserving of a Highsmith analogy. In Helen Wilcox Alexandra Andrews has created a character as ruthless and intimidating as Ripley, as charming as Bruno, as deadly as any of her antagonists driven to murder and steal in order to get what they want. Florence’s hero worshiping personality and her love/hate relationship with her mother Vera recalls the dreamy fantasist Carol who practically wishes her female lover into existence. And the shapeshifting, personality trading practices of Tom Ripley ironically wear rather well on Florence when a near fatal car wreck and mistaken identity allows her to fully immerse herself as Helen in what was previously only role playing.
What follows this quirk of fate is a highly suspenseful novel fraught with tension and devilishly constructed incidents in which Florence must outwit everyone who believes she is Helen and that the Florence is dead. Will she get away with it all? Or is this identity switch something not at all accidental but a sinister plot manufactured to doom Florence/Helen to a life that turns out to be not at all what she thought it would be. In taking on Helen’s identity Florence realizes too late that she must also embrace everything from Helen’s past life – the life of “Maud Dixon” – which slowly reveals itself to be not at all a work of fiction, but terribly and nightmarishly real.
(photo: Andrew De Francesco)
This is but one of a handful of new books I read this year that surpassed all the hype. And if I have one caveat it is that Andrews allows her characters to get the better of her. There is one scene that smacks of turgid B movie melodrama overloaded with the clichés of a psychotic killer on the rampage. The scene I'm thinking of has no place in a book that was so subtle and devious in its layering of manipulation, exploitation and identity theft. But I’ll excuse it all because I hear this is going to be a movie soon. That scene is going to make for some terrific scenery chewing and some nasty hand to hand combat (with a couple of household cleaning items deployed as weapons) for the two actresses who are lucky enough to be cast in the leading roles.
Who Is Maud Dixon? is highly recommended for those who think intelligent, original, and suspenseful crime thrillers are not being written anymore. It’s simultaneously literate, topical and filled with plot machinations of the kind that diehard crime fiction devotees crave. Patricia Highsmith would be have been proud to see her name invoked to sell this notable and deftly handled debut novel. And I think she might have conceded that after so many pretenders to the throne of Highsmithian suspense Alexandra Andrews is her legitimate heir.
P.S. I read this book last month and I wrote this review just after Thanksgiving despite it only being posted today. Coincidentally, I just learned that I'm not the only one who thinks this is worthwhile reading. Sarah Weinman, the regular crime fiction reviewer for The New York Times these days, selected Andrews' debut crime novel as one of the "Best Mystery Novels of 2021." Can I pick 'em or what?