Who is Elly Conway? It's the question plaguing the literary world at the moment. And for that matter, the film and social media worlds as well.
If Penguin Random House - and not to mention British production company Marv Studios - are to be believed, Conway is the debut author of Argylle, which is the inspiration for the upcoming film of the same name. Depending on which version of the Penguin Random House site you reach, her bio either says she "lives somewhere in the United States" or "was born and raised in upstate New York ... [and] wrote her first novel about Agent Argylle while working as a waitress in a late-night diner".
And that, combined with the limited intel gleaned from Conway's somewhat generic social media presence, is all we know about this mysterious new author. Even with her debut novel one of the most anticipated spy thrillers of recent times, Conway hasn't so much as answered one media question or attended one book event in the lead-up to its release.
Perhaps one of the latest posts on the author's Instagram account - a photo of Shari Lapena's 2023 book, Everyone Here is Lying - hints at why. Perhaps everyone here is lying.
Some have theorised that Elly Conway is a pen name for Taylor Swift. Others think it's all clever marketing for the upcoming film - which, by the way, only credits screenwriter Jason Fuchs. But perhaps the biggest clue is in the book, released this week.
The Taylor Swift theory
The first thing you should know about Swifties is that they love a hidden code - also known as an Easter Egg.
It extends right back to the singer's debut album when she encoded the lyrics printed on the CD insert with secret messages. Ever since, everything - whether it's the clothes she wears, her social media posts, the content in her music videos, the price of her merchandise, or the lyrics themselves - is considered to have clues to the next big reveal.
This is where the "Taylor Swift is Elly Conway" theory comes in.
Let's start with the name itself. Conway Recording Studios in Los Angeles is where the singer recorded songs for both versions of Red and 1989 as well as Fearless (Taylor's Version), Lover, Folklore and Reputation. Before Argylle, the only Elly Conway you could find on Google was a Neighbours character that first appeared on December 13, 2001 - which is Swift's birthday. As for Argylle, Swift has been known to wear a lot of Argyle prints and sold a sweater with the print as part of her merchandise.
The film not only features an Argylle book plotline but takes a story within a story approach and also features a plot focusing on a fictional portrayal of Elly Conway. And according to Swifties, there are two big tip-offs that point to the singer being Elly Conway.
The first is that the portrayed author, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, looks similar to Taylor Swift's author character at the end of the All Too Well (10-minute version) short film. The character also owns a Scottish Fold cat - of which Swift has two - and carries it around in a special cat carrier backpack, which the singer is also known to use.
Then there's Conway's Instagram page, the first post of which was on December 13, 2022 - again, Swift's birthday.
It's enough to get Swifties flocking to Elly Conway's Instagram account, trying to decode every photo posted. The photo of a chessboard in the corner of a hotel is met with fans posting Swift lyrics "Checkmate, I couldn't lose" from Mastermind, meanwhile, a picture of a building covered in plants is met with Ivy's "My house of stone your ivy grows".
Another argument is that it's all just clever marketing. The theory is that whether the Argylle marketing team planned the hype or just took the whispers on TikTok as their cue, they have been imitating Swift's Easter Egg strategy to their benefit. After all, what better way to create buzz than to imply that the most talked about person of 2023 is attached to the project?
But discrediting the Swift theory doesn't remove the giant question mark above Elly Conway's name.
If you look at who holds the copyright to Argylle the book, there are two interesting passages.
The first is "Elly Conway has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work". It's a standard line that is printed in all books first published in the United Kingdom - which Argylle is, despite Conway being described as American.
The second, and more damning is "Copyright (c) Marv Quinn Holdings Limited 2024" - Marv Quinn Holdings Limited being the subsidiary of Marv Studios Limited, the production company behind Argylle the film. Marv Studios also has the trademark of "Argylle" - which can only be used if the book or film intends to become a series.
In fact, according to director Matthew Vaughn - who, along with his wife Claudia Schiffer is the company director of Marv Studios - there already is a book series. They just haven't all been published yet.
In an interview on film podcast Happy Sad Confused, Vaughn told host Josh Horowitz there are already four instalments of Argylle written. The first is what hits the shelves this week and the fourth is what features in the film.
"There's a whole series of books planned. So this movie, I mean I don't want to spoil it at all, but I like the idea of the book but also the idea of showing an author writing the book and it just inspired a whole lot of ... meta movie universe(s) ..." he said.
"And book four, which the movie's based around, was the one that would work for it. So book one is being published, but ... listen, Mr Lucas was clever enough to start Star Wars with Episode 4, so why not us? So there was a whole thing about book four, a meta-universe in the sense of having fun with reinventing the cliches of what spies are all about. And then you guys, you'll read book one, which I hope to actually shoot next."
The book itself
There's no denying that the book's release has always been tied up with the film's release. Each time the film has been delayed, so has the book's release. The question is, does the book stand up on its own - particularly considering that Vaughn has revealed the film isn't even based on the book that was released this week.
A suspicious mind does jump to whether the use of AI was used in the creation of Argylle, the book. After all, if it is only a promotional tool, then it only needs to be good enough to be a book "written" in a film. And what is more on-trend than including AI in the marketing of a film?
But running both the author's note and the first chapter through three different detection programs comes up with a zero per cent chance of it being wholly or partially written by AI.
Plus, call it idealistic, but it's hard to believe that lines such as "It would be hard to imagine two people sharing so confined a space in a more separate manner" could be written by a computer.
It's not surprising that Vaughn recommends it - the director's endorsement is the only one printed on the book, stating that it's "the most incredible spy franchise since Ian Fleming". A bold statement - and not one Argylle lives up to. But the only people who would expect it to are the people who believe the endorsements printed on the front of books.
Argylle is an entertaining read. The writing is a little clunky in parts but still manages to bring the excitement readers expect from an international spy thriller - from the train ride through Siberia to the jungles of Thailand to the streets of Monaco.
Will it live up to the expectations of all those Swifties who pre-ordered a copy believing it was the singer behind it? Probably not. It's hard to imagine that the Venn diagram centre is filled with both Swift fans and those who enjoy spy thrillers. But more than that, the book reads as if written through the male gaze. Which is fine if you're just looking for a spy thriller. But disappointing if you're looking for one written by Swift, or even from a female author in general.
What it has done though is successfully create buzz around a film without actually spoiling anything, and created intrigue about one of its characters/the author. Come February 1 there are sure to be people still wanting the answer to one question: Who is Elly Conway?