It’s dunce’s cap time for me.
Eagle-eyed followers of this blog may have noticed that the last item I posted here has vanished overnight. It was a question-and-answer session between myself and Q.R. Markham, the author of a new spy novel, Assassin of Secrets. As is now being widely reported, that novel has been withdrawn by its American publishers, Mullholland, an imprint of Little, Brown. It will also be withdrawn by Mulholland in Britain, on the grounds of plagiarism. As I gave a fulsome blurb for the book (along with a couple of other writers), and a Google search for the author’s name brings up this blog, I’ve already been contacted by one newspaper, and I don’t want this to drag out. I would also like to explain how this happened from my vantage point, and make sure that nobody wastes more time on this. Naturally, I’m embarrassed to have fallen for the deception, and wish I’d spotted it sooner.
In May last year, I received an email from someone called Quentin Rowan, a bookseller in New York who had also published poetry in The Best American Poetry of 1996 and a short story in Paris Review. He said he was a fan of spy thrillers and had enjoyed my first novel, Free Agent, which he had liked for its ‘merging of Bond-style action in the field with Le Carre-like behind-the-scenes/HQ intrigue’. He also mentioned that he had a blog about spy fiction, and that he had written a spy novel set in 1968, titled Spy Safari, for which he had an agent who was already seeking a publisher for it.
I found the email flattering, of course, and thought that Mr Rowan was a very astute young man with excellent taste in spy fiction. The fact that his novel was already represented by a reputable agent also made me think that he was not simply buttering me up to read his unpublishable mess. We exchanged some friendly emails, in which I offered him some advice on the rather nerve-wracking process of waiting for responses from publishers, and soon after I invited him to submit a guest post to this blog, which he did (and which I’ve since removed, for reasons that will become clear). Swimming, I thought. Uplifting. The internet: a collegiate place, after all!
In July, two months after he had first contacted me, Quentin announced that his novel had sold to a major publisher, Little, Brown. He was taking the pseudonym Q.R. Markham – a reference to Robert Markham, the alias used by Kinglsey Amis for his 1968 James Bond novel Colonel Sun – and the book would now be titled Assassin of Secrets. Some time after that, he asked if I would like to read the book with a mind to endorsing it if I enjoyed it, and I readily agreed.
I really did enjoy the novel, which seemed to me to combine all the familar tropes I like about spy fiction into one book, but to use some wonderful imagery and language to do so. I gave it the best quote I could, calling it an ‘instant classic’ (I am blushing). I agreed to help him promote the book by doing a question-and-answer session with his publisher for use on their website, which we did a few months ago together in Google Docs. As with the book, I was impressed at Quentin’s knowledge, insights, and command of language. Our exchange was published online just a few days ago.
Yesterday, while perusing a James Bond forum, I noticed that someone had started a discussion about Assassin of Secrets. Initial commenters were impressed by the excerpt on the publisher’s site (as I had been), but one commenter was not, noting that several passages seemed to have been taken verbatim from Licence Renewed, the 1981 James Bond novel by John Gardner. My eyes goggled. Verbatim? Really? I went to my bookshelf and took out Licence Renewed – which I should say I haven’t read in several years. And by gum, the commenter was right. It was indeed verbatim. He had changed ‘James Bond’ to ‘Jonathan Chase’, the name of his protagonist, and Ann Reilly, Gardner’s character, to ‘Francesca Farmer’, but otherwise entire sentences were identical: ‘Then he saw her, behind the fountain, a small light, dim but growing to illuminate her as she stood naked but for a thin, translucent nightdress; her hair undone and falling to her waist – hair and the thin material moving and blowing as though caught in a silent zephyr.’ The exact same sentence in both books. I took another sentence at random in the chapter, put quote marks around it, and entered it into Google Books. It was verbatim from another Bond novel, Zero Minus Ten, by Raymond Benson, which I haven’t read. Another sentence: verbatim from Second Sight by the American spy novelist Charles McCarry, which I also haven’t read. Another sentence: verbatim from The Prometheus Deception by Robert Ludlum, which I have read, many moons ago. He seemed to have taken most of his action scenes and dialogue from post-Fleming Bond novels (at least six of Gardner’s), and added long poetic descriptions from several of McCarry’s books, as well as the back-story for his protagonist. A bizarre personal playlist of his favourite moments in the genre, I guess, all sewn together with the magic of Controls C and V.
I had hoped that this problem, awful as it was, only affected the opening of the novel, but as I looked into it more I quickly realized that the whole novel was ‘written’ this way – I was finding it hard to find sentences that had not been taken verbatim or near-verbatim from other sources. I came across a scene that was, apart from the names of characters and locations, precisely the same as one in Gardner’s For Special Services. Then I found a scene that was, word for word apart from the names, the same as one in Licence Renewed, for six pages straight.
I considered emailing Mr Rowan to ask him what in blue blazes he was thinking, but decided not to waste any more time corresponding with him – it would make no difference what excuse he came up with. The evidence was incontrovertible, and it was also rather late in the day for explanations. The novel was due out in Britain this Thursday, and my name and now clearly idiotic recommendation was prominently displayed on the jacket. I immediately emailed the publisher, explaining the situation and giving the example from the Bond message board and all the others I had found, and asking them to remove the Q&A I had done with him from their websites – he had of course also plagiarized many of his comments in it, from Dream Time by Geoffrey O’Brien, which was also the source for much of his book’s prologue – and to withdraw the book.
This they have done, and very quickly, as well. I think they acted promptly and professionally, and I don’t attach any blame to them for any of this. It’s embarrassing enough as a Bond fan to admit that I didn’t spot massive lifts from these novels. (And ironic in its way, too, as two repeated topics of this blog have been the literary James Bond and Johann Hari’s plagiarism.) I don’t think it would be reasonable to expect a publisher to check through the thousands of thrillers out there to make sure a book on submission was not a collage of others’ work from start to finish. The idea that anyone would do such a thing never even crossed my mind until last night. I am, of course, embarrassed and irritated at having been duped, as it seems so very very obvious now, and disappointed at having wasted time on supporting someone whose writing I admired, when really it was the writing of John Gardner, Charles McCarry and several others.
I also find the whole thing fairly mind-boggling, and have no idea how Mr Rowan thought he could get away with it. He got rather lucky with me in that, although I’m a huge fan of spy fiction, these days I rarely read it, ironically enough because since starting to write spy novels I don’t like to expose myself too much to others’ takes on it in case some of it rubs off on me and I subconsciously start to echo what I have read elsewhere. I’ve read at least five of the books he plagiarized, but in all cases I did so long enough ago and I’ve read enough other books in the genre that I didn’t recognize the passages taken from them in a new context, even when they were so brazenly stolen. He managed to get it by Little, Brown, Hodder, me and several others (the book had starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly), but it’s not as if nobody else has read any James Bond novels or Robert Ludlum, so I don’t really get it. Someone had already noticed from the short excerpt published online. Sooner or later, others would have been reminded of scenes in other books, too, and the game would have been up. Some are now combing through the book trying to find what he plagiarized. I wouldn’t bother – it looks to me like pretty much every sentence in it was taken from elsewhere, so you’ll simply be wasting your time.
It’s such a bizarre thing to have done that I can’t fathom the reasons for it. But I do know one thing – I won’t be blurbing any more books for a while.