Few things in life fascinate me more than plagiarism. Or, as I like to call it, “writer-on-writer crime.” The idea of one author consciously stealing material from another — sometimes in massive chunks — in the belief he’ll get away with it, even in this age of instant, multi-platform communication, just blows my mind. Talk about sociopathic behavior!
Last month at the spectacular Murder and Mayhem festival in Muskegee, Wisconsin, Duane Swierczynski hipped me to the strange and fantastic case of first-time novelist Quentin Rowan, aka Q.R. Markham, who’d just recently been exposed as maybe the most prolific and self-destructive plagiarist of all time. I won’t go into all the details here of the mess Rowan created — such details are all over the internet in places like this and this, if you’re interested — but in a nutshell, the would-be literary superstar humiliated his publisher, Mulholland Books, and the host of authors who enthusiastically blurbed him (including Duane), by selling them all an espionage novel — ASSASSIN OF SECRETS — that turned out to be little more than a mashup of the works of at least five other authors. Detailed analysis of the manuscript has revealed, in fact, that lines, let alone paragraphs, of Rowan’s own invention are few and far between.
Yet nobody recognized Rowan’s book as a hodge-podge of disparate material stolen from multiple sources — not his editor, not reviewers (both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly gave ASSASSIN OF SECRETS a starred review), not the authors who blurbed him — until users of a James Bond message board began to comment on the similarities they were finding between Rowan’s work and that of Ian Fleming and several other name spy novelists.
At first, I found this last amazing. How could no one have noticed earlier? But then I read whole passages of Rowan’s “novel” and understood that serial plagiarism of this kind, when done well (if not brilliantly), may not be as easy to spot as one would think. God bless Quentin Rowan’s black little heart, but hell if he didn’t stitch all that unrelated prose together in a way that actually made for a compelling and, more importantly, seamless read.
Which brings me to this, my first contribution to the fun and games of Wildcard Tuesdays here at Murderati. Just for kicks, I thought I’d try my hand at playing Q.R. Markham for a day. The following is a mashup of my own writing and that of five of my Murderati brethren. Can you tell which is which?
I’ll give away a copy of my new thriller, ASSUME NOTHING, to whoever does the best job of separating plagiarism from original writing. I’ve numbered every line, so all you have to do is tell me which ones are my work and which ones are not. There’s no need to specify who I’ve borrowed from in each case. I’ll give you that info at the end of the day.
Obviously, I’m counting on all of you to play fair — no Googling, Amazon surfing, or skimming through the pages of BOULEVARD, KISS OF DEATH, or FOURTH DAY allowed.
1. Farrell never knew his mother or father. 2. He’d grown up alone in the world, fending for himself as best he could against all the hardship life could throw at him.
3. Which, as it turned out, was plenty. 4. Monsters on the street saw a kid on his own, no adult around to watch his back, they were swimming in circles around him before he could blink.
5. Still, Farrell sometimes wondered if being parentless wasn’t a blessing in disguise. 6. It gave him a kind of freedom from the usual attachments that seemed to hold others back.
7. Life would be more fluid for him because love and desire and ambition would be a question of choice, not obligation
8. At least, he liked to think choice was how he ended up this way, teetering on the brink of thirty with his heart firmly tethered to a wife and two teenage daughters. 9. This wasn’t just something that had happened to him, it was the product of design.
10. “That’s your study partner? You’re getting in a car with him?“
11. “Yes, Daddy. His name is Steven.” Cassie snatched her keys off the hallway table on her way out. “Bye, gotta go.”
12. Farrell took another look out the front window, not caring if “Steven” saw him or not. 13. What he saw made him blanch. 14. The young man was big and pink, with firm layers of fat billowing out from under a bright red polo shirt. 15. He was shaped like one of those hard rubber Kongs, the type Doberman pinschers used to sharpen their teeth.
16. And most terrifying of all, his car was a Volvo, bolted to steel wheels better suited to a trailer park Oldsmobile.
17. “I don’t like it,” Farrell said.
18. Cassie grinned and flipped a hand, dismissing the warning. 19. Then she yanked open the screen door, breaking into a run as soon as she hit the porch.
20. Such was his daily existence now, going from one blown-off note of worry to another. 21. His wife Natalee didn’t need his protection but Cassie and May, Cassie’s younger sister, both courted death like a rich suitor. 22. They took chances that would give a circus daredevil pause, leaving Farrell nothing to do but fear for their lives every waking moment. 23. He could see their end in every accident or natural disaster.
24. A fire, for instance. 25. Standing on his bedroom balcony just after lunch, he smelled the smoke first, then sighted it spiraling upward, over the dingy rooftops to the east. 26. Soon there were fire trucks in the distance, their Doppler-effect wails punctuated with staccato chatter-and-yelp as they barreled through each intersection.
27. May, he thought irrationally. May’s caught in the fire.
28. He dialed her cell phone before common sense could get the better of him and she picked up on only the fourth ring. 29. He was offering her one of his standard apologies when the line went suddenly silent, as if the phone had been abruptly snatched from the girl’s hand. 30. Then there was just noise, the ragged sounds of what a paranoid fool like Farrell could only assume was a struggle:
31. Deep, fight-for-air panting. 32. Heavy thuds of elbows or boots against a car’s solid metal door. 33. A long exhaled breath. 34. Then more silence, before a kicked pebble ricocheted off a beer can as someone moved away.
35. Farrell couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt the need to scream. 36. Maybe eight years ago, when Natalee had punctuated one of their more violent arguments by closing a taxi door on his left hand? 37. But he needed to scream now.
No Questions for the Class today, but I would love to hear any great stories of plagiarism you might have to tell. I just can’t get enough of ’em.