To play with the phrasing of Dr Knowd’s assessment of Charles Highway, Quentin Rowan has, I think, used others’ literature ruthlessly for his own ends (if you haven’t followed this story, please see my last post). But in doing so, he did, curiously, also create something that had ‘a life of its own’, and to adopt a pseudo-academic tone, what one might call a mask of knowing and an unearned, one could say, automatic resonance.‘“For example. In the Literature paper you complain that Yeats and Eliot... ‘in their later phases opted for the cold certainties that can work only outside the messiness of life. They prudently repaired to the artifice of eternity, etc. etc.’ This then gives you a grand-sounding line on the ‘faked inhumanity’ of the seduction of the typist in The Waste Land – a point you owe to W. W. Clarke – which, it seems, is just a bit too messy all of a sudden. Again, in the Criticism paper you jeer at Lawrence’s ‘unreal sexual grandiosity’, using Middleton Murry on Women in Love, also without acknowledgement. In the very next line you scold his ‘overfacile equation of art and life.’”He sighed. “On Blake you seem quite happy to paraphrase the ‘Fearful Symmetry’ stuff about ‘autonomous verbal constructs, necessarily unconnected with life’, but in your Essay paper you come on all excited about the ‘urgency… with which Blake educates and refines our emotions, side-stepping the props and splints of artifice’. Ever tried side-stepping a splint, by the way? Or educating someone urgently, for that matter?“Donne is okay one minute because of his ‘emotional courage’, the way he seems to ‘stretch out his emotions in the very fabric of the verse’, and not okay the next because you detect... what is it you detect? – ah yes, a ‘meretricious exaltation of verbal play over real feeling, tailoring his emotion to suit his metrics’. Now which is it to be? I really wouldn’t carp, but these remarks come from the paragraph and are about the same stanza.“I won’t go on... Literature has a kind of life of its own, you know. You can’t just use it...ruthlessly, for your own ends...”
Apart from taking the piss out of the inevitable academic studies of this book that I think will soon appear, what do I mean by that? Let me try to explain, in terms which I hope are not pseudo-academic, self-serving or forgiving, but an honest attempt to understand why I liked the book so much, and why it ‘worked’, at least for a time. Since the plagiarism in Assassin of Secrets has come to light, I’ve seen remarks from several people wondering how on earth it was not spotted earlier, by his agent, his editors, reviewers, or Greg Rucka, Duane Swierczynski and myself, all of whom praised the book and are now angered at having missed what it was. I haven’t gone through every line of the book, but it seems clear that the vast majority of it, pretty much down to every paragraph, was stitched together from other works: at least a dozen in total. But even if you weren’t familiar with the works he stole from, some have asked, surely it must have been obvious that the book was not original because it would have been totally incoherent?
Well, no. It is a coherent novel. The plot is not its driving force, as it might be in a crime story, and in many ways it read to me like a collection of set scenes, which of course was what it was. But that feeling – absent the knowledge that it was plagiarized – was part of its charm. I don’t believe that the book was a post-modern experiment to expose the publishing industry or anything of that sort, as some have inevitably suggested, simply because ruining your own career and having to pay your advance back in the process is not all that fun an experiment. Was Richard Condon doing the same when he plagiarized I, Claudius in The Manchurian Candidate? Or was he, more likely, simply plagiarizing and hoping nobody would spot it, as indeed in that case nobody did for many years. (I don’t know if anyone has examined the book in more detail since 2003, but I suspect there may be a lot more plagiarism in it, and probably in Condon’s other novels, too.)
But a great part of the appeal of Assassin of Secrets, to me anyway, was what I felt to be its post-modernism, albeit in a very different way. It reminded me of several other novels – sadly, not the ones he plagiarized! It reminded me in parts of Cockpit, Jerzy Kosinki’s 1975 novel about a former spy called Tarden, which contains a lot of dazzling writing but reads as fragmentary excerpts. This is perhaps not all that surprising, as Kosinski has also been exposed as a plagiarist (long after he was published, and won many awards), and Cockpit is now thought to have been a compilation of pieces Kosinski commissioned from unknown writers and then assembled, partially helped by a young Paul Auster.
It also reminded me in parts of David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive. Like Cockpit, that film is compelling not for its plot, which is unfathomable or non-existent, but in the way it plays with our memories of and feelings for genre conventions. Both Cockpit and Mulholland Drive feel like dreams, where narrative rules are abandoned, leaving dead-ends that allow the reader or viewer to step in and find their own resonances. It also reminded me in parts of Inception, which does have a coherent plot (I think) but does much the same. At one point in that film, Cobb and his team have to infiltrate a guarded clinic – that’s plot. But Christopher Nolan could have placed that clinic anywhere, and the plot would have been the same. He decided to place it in a snowy mountain fortress, I think so he could have fun exploring, almost in isolation of the plot, our memories of and expectations of a James Bond film.
The plot of Assassin of Secrets was more coherent than Cockpit or Mulholland Drive, but not as coherent as Inception. It worked, and held the attention, but it was not the chief appeal: it was understood that it was a vehicle for spy shenanigans around the world. The book also reminded me of Tunc and Nunquam, two linked novels by Lawrence Durrell that play with spy thriller conventions, and James Bond, and leap about all over the place. There is a plot, but it’s not what I primarily find enjoyable about those novels, the latter of which, incidentally, features a snowbound clinic, and of which The Observer’s critic wrote: ‘There are times when one wonders if one isn’t reading some unholy coupling of Swinburne and Ian Fleming.’
It was the style that I liked most about Assassin of Secrets. That style was predominantly taken from the American spy novelist Charles McCarry, at least five of whose novels Rowan plagiarized: The Tears of Autumn, Christopher’s Ghosts, Shelley’s Heart, The Last Supper and Second Sight. I’ve read the first two of those mentioned several years ago, and remember next to nothing about them other than that the protagonist is a CIA officer who is also a poet, that I enjoyed them, and that the prose was wonderful. Much of what I admired in Assassin of Secrets, I now realize, was McCarry’s prose, which looks to take up roughly half the book, although that may not have been the case with the draft his agent submitted to publishers. On July 2 2010, shortly after he was offered a two-book deal by Little, Brown, Rowan wrote to me via Facebook:
‘Now I s’pose I wait for them to summon me to sign some contracts and then I’m working with the editor. Can’t remember if I told you, but besides changing the title, he wants me to change a few scenes he thought too Bond-like. If they’re really going to stick me with this new title, I’m thinking of proposing ‘An Enemy of War’ instead. Even so, it’s quite forgettable.Trying to take it easy now and celebrate but mind is mostly racing miles ahead of me. Luckily, I’ve already started the second book...All the Best,Quentin’
‘Too Bond-like’ is quite something, as most of the published novel that is not plagiarized from McCarry is plagiarized from Bond novels. Presuming he was telling me the truth, I wonder how much Bond was in his original submission to his agent. But perhaps this was a lie designed to put me off the scent, although it seems an odd way to do that. We had discussed our favourite authors in the genre before. On May 4 2010, he had emailed me:
‘Have you tried Adam Diment? or James Dark (Don’t think that was his real name, but his spy is named Mark Hood). I’ve found them both pretty enjoyable, though a little light-weight. One thing I’ve found in my research is that there really aren’t that many American spy novelists who are any good. Perhaps only Charles McCarry. Though I suppose there are good American thriller writers, their prose is usually slightly awful. Take Robert Ludlum, for example.’I have read a few novels by Adam Diment and James Dark (though please don’t test me on them), and told him so. I also told him that I had read some McCarry and enjoyed it, but that I hadn’t read all his work – perhaps at this point he decided to add more McCarry into the book.
Quentin Rowan’s emails to me were, either accidentally or by design, well aimed. I share his view of Ludlum, who of course he also plagiarized in Assassin of Secrets. I think it may be that he knew I would share these views, as I have probably spouted them somewhere online in the last decade, and he was simply parroting them back at me. Or he may have genuinely felt this way – in which case why did he plagiarize Ludlum, if he thought his prose was ‘slightly awful’? Well, not all of Ludlum’s prose is that, of course. Ludlum has sold over 200 million books, so he was doing something right. And I think that was primarily two things: premise, and pace. By the first, I mean Ludlum had some terrific premises, most notably that of The Bourne Identity, of a government assassin who has forgotten who he is and is being chased by his desperate employers. As I explored in this essay, it is clearly inspired by Ian Fleming, who I think in turn may have taken the premise from two previous writers. But Ludlum made it his own, and made it exciting. On pace, Ken Follett has written that a story ‘should turn about every four to six pages’. McCarry does not subscribe to that idea; Ludlum sometimes has several major turns in one page. These are often rendered in hackneyed and laboured prose and signalled by internal dialogue in italics with exclamation points, but they have their own intensity that sweeps you up and keeps you reading.
And Ludlum didn’t always write in hackneyed prose. Those bits tend to stand out and irritate me, but he also wrote plenty of vivid and evocative descriptions, sometimes overly florid but sometimes judged just right. He was notorious for making mistakes about guns, but his fight scenes are usually gripping. He was also extremely prolific, perhaps making detection seem less likely. It looks to me as though Quentin Rowan took several passages from Ludlum that he thought fitted his purposes. They provided his hero with some muscularity – the stereotypical secret agent who can kill everyone in the room using a toothpick. Assassin of Secrets also reminded me of Trevanian, incidentally, who parodied this sort of thing brilliantly in Shibumi, The Eiger Sanction and The Loo Sanction, often in such a deadpan style that it was not noticed.
Yes, it reminded me of a lot of books, and the wrong books to boot – but there are a lot of books out there. His protagonist, Jonathan Chase, is (was?) an amalgamation of attributes: like many of Ludlum’s protagonists, he is determined, fit, and repeatedly evades death with consummate skill, often in close combat with opponents. This came back into fashion with the film version of The Bourne Identity in 2002, meaning that segments taken from old Ludlum novels now seem up-to-the minute even when, perhaps especially when, transferred into a Cold War setting. Jonathan Chase is also up against a vast villainous organization who meet in a secret headquarters in a Casablanca market accessed via a steel passageway. If you’ve read Raymond Benson’s 1999 James Bond novel High Time To Kill, you may recognize that this is where he took that from, but I read that book in 1999 and interviewed Raymond Benson about it, and didn’t notice. Rowan, relocating all the action to the late Sixties, combined Benson’s scene with one from McCarry’s Second Sight. Rowan’s villain, The Mirza, looks precisely like Benson’s villain, Le Gérant, and speaks many of his lines verbatim. But he also resembles McCarry’s villain Yeho, and speaks many of his lines verbatim. Likewise, Rowan’s character Neville Scott is a mix of McCarry’s character Horace Christopher and Benson’s character Dr Steven Harding.
McCarry’s characters are much more recognizably realistic than Benson, Ludlum or Gardner’s – he was writing a different sort of spy novel, and it doesn’t contain fist-fights or underground lairs, but is rather more concerned with lie detector tests and elaborate deception operations that play out like chess games. Rowan took elements of both, and combined them into a stew that in hindsight may seem obvious (especially if you were not fooled originally!), but which I genuinely found not just coherent, but compelling. Here’s an example of how he did it, with a passage from page 9 of Assassin of Secrets in which an American agent, Number One, is drawn by a beautiful woman on a train to her compartment, whereupon she attacks him:
‘With a shout, he delivered a kick to the blond woman’s chest, knocking her back. The blow was meant to cause serious damage, but it landed too far to the left of the sternal vital-point target. Number One was momentarily surprised that she didn’t fall, but he immediately drove his fist into her abdomen. That was his first mistake – mixing his fighting styles. He’d been using a mixture of karate and traditional Western boxing, whereas the female had picked a system and stuck with it. He kept on, though, lunging away, and smelling her stinking Je Reviens perfume, but he knew these sensations were only a dream. In reality they were floating in a skiff down the Seine, listening to a tinny phonograph record of a girl singing in French. How beautifully the girl sang, how the river smelled of the flowers that turned its torpid waters into perfume, how much like his own mind and voice were the mind and voice of this chanteuse! It was uncanny.
Someone seized his lower lip and twisted. The pain changed his idea of where he was. His right eye focused, briefly, and he glimpsed the blond woman’s eyes. She was on top of him now, thrusting her forearm into Number One’s neck, exerting tremendous pressure on his larynx. With his right hand, the American fumbled in his pants pocket, attempting to get at his insurance policy. The blond managed to elbow him in the ribs, but this only served to increase his determination. She managed to get her hands around the man’s neck, but it was too late; Number One deftly retrieved the twenty-ounce Mk 2 “pineapple” fragmentation grenade from his trousers and pulled the pin.
She dived through the compartment door and fell to the floor in the hallway. Afterward, the assassin known as Snow Queen thought that she remembered the flash of the explosion lighting the flat face of the American spy and the blast lifting his thick black hair so that it stood on end. The noise was a long time coming. Before she heard the explosion, like the snap of a heavy howitzer, she saw the whole body of the train car swell like a balloon full of water. The glass blew out and the compartment door cut through the rest of the car like a great black knife.
Concussion sent blood gushing out of her broken nose. She could hear nothing except a high ringing in her ears. All around her, mouths opened in noiseless screams of terror. She lay where she was with her eyes open.
In a few hours a policeman wearing a lacquered French helmet liner leaned over her and spoke. The blond woman pointed to her ears and said, “I’m deaf.” She heard nothing of her own voice but felt its movement over her tongue. The policeman pulled her to her feet and led her out of the debris. She would have been killed by the fire truck that roared up behind them if the Frenchman had not pulled her out of the way.’Is this coherent? I thought it was, and thoroughly enjoyed it: a close, terse, vividly painted fight, but also spinning off unexpectedly to a dream sequence, and ending with a superb piece of description of an explosion and its aftermath. I was hooked, and wanted to read on.
The scene is constructed entirely from three other passages, one by Raymond Benson and two by Charles McCarry. Here’s the scene by Benson, from Zero Minus Ten:
‘With a shout, he leapt in the air and delivered a Yobi-geri kick to Bond’s chest, knocking him back. The blow was meant to cause serious damage, but it landed too far to the left of the sternal vital point target. Michaels was momentarily surprised that Bond didn’t fall, but he immediately drove his fist into Bond’s abdomen. That was the assassin’s first mistake – mixing his fighting styles. He was using a mixture of karate, kung fu, and traditional Western boxing. Bond believed in using whatever worked, but he practiced hand-to-hand combat in the same way that he gambled. He picked a system and stuck with it.
By lunging at Bond’s stomach, the man had left himself wide open, enabling Bond to backhand him to the ground. Giving him no time to think, Bond sprang on top of him and punched him hard in the face, but Michaels used his strength to roll Bond over onto his back, and, thrusting his forearm into Bond’s neck, exerted tremendous pressure on 007′s larynx once again. With his other hand, the young man fumbled with Bond’s waterproof holster, attempting to get at the gun. Bond managed to elbow his assailant in the ribs, but this only served to increase his aggression. Bond got his hands around the man’s neck, but it was too late. Michaels deftly retrieved the Walther PPK 7.65mm from the holster and jumped to his feet.
“All right, freeze!” he shouted at Bond, standing over him, the gun aimed at his forehead…’Here is the passage from McCarry’s Second Sight:
‘Patchen kept hearing Maria Rothchild’s voice and smelling the smoke from her stinking Gauloises Bleues cigarettes, but he knew these sensations were only a dream. In reality he was floating in a sampan on the River of Perfumes, listening to a tinny phonograph record of a girl singing in Vietnamese. Vo Rau translated the lyrics: “She says that God is the smallest thing in the universe, so small that he cannot be imagined; he does not wish to be imagined, so he fills the sky with the stars that are his uncountable thoughts and we look not at the place where he is, but at the places where he has never been.” Patchen nodded sagaciously; this much of the truth he had already perceived. How beautifully the girl sang, how the river smelled of the flowers that turned its torpid waters into perfume, how much like his own mind and voice were the mind and voice of Vo Rau! It was uncanny.
Someone seized Patchen’s lower lip and twisted. The pain changed his idea of where he was. Maria Rothchild said, “Wake up, David.” His right eye focused, briefly, and he glimpsed Maria’s face.’And here’s the passage from McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn:
‘Afterward, he thought that he remembered the flash of the explosion lighting the flat face of the Chinese boy and the blast lifting the boy’s thick black hair so that it stood on end. The noise was a long time coming. Before he heard the explosion, like the slap of a heavy howitzer, he saw the whole body of the car swell like a balloon full of water. The glass blew out and one door cut through the crowd like a great black knife.
Concussion sent blood gushing out of his nose. He could hear nothing except a high ringing in his ears. All around him, mouths opened in noiseless screams of terror. He lay where he was with his eyes open.
In a few moments a policeman wearing a lacquered American helmet liner leaned over him and spoke. Christopher pointed to his ears and said, “I’m deaf.” He heard nothing of his own voice but felt its movement over his tongue. The policeman pulled him to his feet and led him toward the end of the street. He would have been killed by the fire truck that roared up behind them if the policeman had not pulled him out of the way.’Fairly astonishing. I think it is too easy to say with the benefit of hindsight that the joins are easy to spot in the scene above. I don’t think that is the case, even reading it again now. It is also well established that combining different pieces of one’s own writing can create fresh and surprising effects and resonances, and I think thrillers often thrive on this sort of dotting about and unpredictability. It can be highly effective, and I think it was in this scene and many others. So I think it would be dishonest to claim that this subterfuge should have been obvious to any editor, or reviewer, or, well, me: even if you had happened to have read all three of these novels – and I had only read one – I think it would be chance if you spotted it. It took a certain amount of intelligence and ingenuity to have pieced these passages together to make a coherent and readable scene, and moreover Rowan did this for the entire novel, using over a dozen sources for his unholy but also illegal coupling. This example, I think, illustrates the technique he used for much of the book: action and dialogue from Bond and Ludlum novels are interspersed with poetic flourishes and descriptions from across McCarry’s work. Jonathan Chase’s entire backstory is also taken from McCarry’s Second Sight, and grounds the character in a surreal but convincing espionage reality.
It took some ingenuity, but that ingenuity is still very limited, and in my view doesn’t even begin to equate with the talent and work of those he plagiarized. I suspect I could, if I wanted, create a novel in this way. I couldn’t write the original passages, though – that is quite another order of ingenuity, and how long Rowan took to piece passages from books together to make it read convincingly doesn’t matter in the least: it was a Charles Highway-style robbery of several other writers’ ideas, and unfortunately I was not familar enough with his sources to perform a Dr Knowd on him: I’m fairly widely read in the genre, I think, but I haven’t read every spy novel ever published, don’t have a photographic memory, and quite simply wasn’t looking for this. And while I think the idea to do this was cunning, albeit totally unethical and absurdly unlikely to have remained undetected for long once it reached thousands of eyes, I don’t agree that it would have been easier to have written the novel from scratch. I’m pretty sure he couldn’t do that, which is why he cut and pasted the whole book. Clever forgery does not stand on a level with original creation, and having good taste in which spy novels to plagiarize isn’t much to laud, either.
Some have said that plagiarism, derivation and influence are on a sliding scale, and I agree. Some newspapers mistakenly reported that Rowan plagiarized Ian Fleming, but it’s a thought-provoking error, as part of the reason I enjoyed it was because in many parts it read like a pastiche of Fleming, only played straight – a kind of Bond novel in inverted commas. And in some ways, that is what the post-Fleming novels are, because they are indebted to the original creation and trying to find new takes on it while having fun with what we all associate with Fleming’s books and the films adapted from them. Outside a James Bond novel, a villainous organization meeting in a secret headquarters reads as Bond pastiche. It is also the case that Ian Fleming was taken to court for plagiarism, and settled, and that he sometimes refashioned premises and ideas from other writers, as I’ve written about. In You Only Live Twice, James Bond’s philosophy is quoted as ‘I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.’ As John Pearson revealed in his 1966 biography of Fleming, this line was Jack London’s, and Fleming used it without attribution.
One can argue what is acceptable behaviour in such matters, but I think it is clear that Fleming is on the end of the scale marked ‘sometimes derivative’ while Assassin of Secrets is at the other end, marked ‘straightforward plagiarism’. It’s a fascinating and bizarre thing to have done, but please don’t make the mistake of thinking there was anything admirable in it. The honest publishing professionals who paid him and spent their time promoting him, creating artwork for him, arranging events for him and all the rest in good faith, and the talented writers whose work he so shamelessly stole, deserve more respect than to glorify his actions as some noble anti-establishment ruse, piece of performance art or any nonsense of that sort. Rather than seeking fault with his victims, it would be much more responsible to condemn Rowan’s fraud and theft.