A Small Art
[UPDATE: because several of you protested that Crooked House by Agatha Christie was nothing like the Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth (and you were right. Crooked house is a different plot) I realized that I’d gotten muddled due to the fact this author uses an Agatha Christie title and a different plot. Which btw diminishes the chances of its being in any way an “homage.”
The plot she uses is from Peril At End House (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/PerilAtEndHouse which is the one that resembles Patricia Wentworth’s The Chinese Shawl. Mind you I THINK the solution is different and less fiendish in The Chinese Shawl. Also having looked up the dates, The Chinese Shawl was published 11 years after Peril At End House. So it’s possible that Wentworth either was saying “sure, like that, but let’s twist it this way.” OR that she’d read it and simply didn’t remember. It’s not one of the more memorable Christies.)
Recently I borrowed a book called Crooked House because I was in a hurry, saw only the title, and thought it was Crooked House by Agatha Christie.
Mind you, I think growing up I read that book about a million times, and I’ve probably read it three or four times since I got married. So, I know the book very well. I just wanted to re-read it on a day I wasn’t feeling well enough to do much of anything. But I accidentally borrowed the wrong book.
Which is okay, since the book I borrowed has the almost exact plot. (A minor deviation at the end where one of the guys is the woman’s accomplice, and the adaptations needed to the 21st century were all I saw.)
Now, this is not copyright infringement.
For a book to stand in copyright infringement, it needs to take SUBSTANTIAL portions of language from the original book. I know this, because there is a writer of some renown (made on that series) who lifted considerable portions of the plot my first three books. (More the fool she, since for the first, feeling completely insecure after selling it on spec, I lifted the legend of Tam Lin. Meh.) After so many fans came to me, I consulted a friendly lawyer who said because the similarity was such there MIGHT be a case, but he wouldn’t give it more than 25% of chance of winning.
To prove plagiarism, you need WORDS lifted off the page. At least if you want to have a chance of succeeding.
Things that are not copyrightable include — but are not limited to — titles (unless the author trademarked them), character names (I had a friend accidentally lift one of mine and then be completely apologetic, because it was unusual, but really, who cares?), plots, ideas or even elements of world building.
As far as I understand — and I’m NOT a lawyer — the copyright covers the EXPRESSION of the idea, not the idea itself.
Frankly if ideas were copyrighteable ALL of science fiction would be in trouble, and I’d owe the Heinlein estate for A Few Good Men. Because it, like a lot of science fiction was “Good thought. Now let’s take the situation on Earth and without a supercomputer.” This is why better minds than mine have described SF as a dialogue. “Oh, you think that’s what would happen in that situation? Because I think it is this.”
But this book was not science fiction. It was a mystery. And therefore as you might imagine, the lifting of the plot wholesale was somewhat of a detriment.
I knew who the murderer was from the discussion on names, and from then on skimmed, partly hoping the author would pull a double-reverse psych and have someone else be the murderer, partly in the spirit in which one watches a train wreck, as she hit all the same beats AT THE SAME POINT as the original book.
BTW there is — in general — nothing wrong with lifting an old plot. Particularly if it’s by one of the more obscure writers. I have several filed ideas that I want to do, most of them based on “throwaway” Clifford D. Simak twists. The man — possibly because he was a journalist — kept to the main idea with disturbing tenacity and would mention other ideas/conditions/possibilities off hand and never pursue them.
And at least one of his ideas I think needs to be explored, because he was so tenacious in his assumptions of how humanity would behave that he never did. If it weren’t for the mess of Winnie the flu stopping my mind for three months I’d already be well away on that book which I’m doing with a friend. (It’s based on Our Children’s Children.)
I also have several ideas for women in peril mysteries filed away from Patricia Wentworth, but again, never the whole plot. One or two particularly clever twists, maybe (though she wasn’t good at twists, she was good at characters) but mostly? Just the idea. BTW this is notable because Patricia Wentworth wrote the plot of Crooked house in The Chinese Shawl. I’ve often wondered which of them wrote it first, and if it was consciously taken. I’d want to say PW wrote it first, because AC gave it more twist and depth, but that isn’t necessarily true, since the books though largely similar as to plot are not similar as to DETAILS and are each very much their own author’s.
Which brings us to the mess with this book — which has the same name as Christie’s which has the same plot — where it’s impossible to imagine the author never read the first book, or that she didn’t know what she was doing at a very conscious level.
One wonders if she thought Christie was so obscure that she was very clever in stealing the plot. (A desperate writer under contract is capable of anything, but one should stick to less well known authors, which, unfortunately, necessitates often fixing or deepening plots, since there’s a reason the workaday authors of the past don’t remain with us. Fortunately most writers worth their salt want to do that, anyway.) And since from the author’s completely unnecessary sticking in of lefty talking points I PRESUME that it was traditionally published (I also didn’t look. I borrowed a paper copy, no longer with me. I’m not, btw, being coy in not giving the author’s name. I don’t remember it.) either she was right and the new generation of mystery editors never read Christie (and why not? Many clergymen today never read the Bible. or believe in it.) OR her editor similarly thought they were both being very clever. I don’t know. Either notion makes me more than a little queasy. Though I understand hiring illiterates to edit books cuts down on costs. (Or not, since these tend to be Ivy League graduate illiterates.) Perhaps naming it the same thing was an attempt to claim it was an homage if caught with fingers in cookie jar. If so it’s a clever-fool idea.
In any case — and weirdly — the whole point of my post is not to say “don’t do that, ‘mkay?” Honestly, until I skimmed that brazen theft of a book, I had no idea anyone would do that. It seems to require a combination of glaring audacity and stupidity that I dare say is not often found in human beings.
The point is that for about ten pages, on the book, the author goes on about lighthouses, which supposedly her character likes.
And for that moment, that brief portion of the book, the book comes alive.
Remember that last week I told you being a writer is not what you do? Being a writer is what you ARE. (Arguably even when too sick for writing, I daydream stories. Even if I lack the concentration and ability to set them on paper.)
Years ago, when watching a Shakespeare biopic series, (the one with Tim Curry. If you can find it in a format watchable today, well, my 16 year old self thought well of it. I haven’t rewatched it. Am afraid to even see if it’s available, because these things rarely live up, you know?) they had Marlowe tell Shakespeare “No, you have to put something of yourself in it.”
Now, normally you can’t avoid it, something of yourself will leak in, even in the midst of the most scripted, carefully plotted in advance book.
Heck, even the way you plot is yours and involves the assumptions you make about the world. Hence the wanting to rewrite old sf, because the author’s assumptions have since been proven glaringly wrong (in the case of Our Children’s Children, for instance.) Or wanting to rewrite the idea of a novel that annoyed the living frick out of us or where we think the game was rigged in one particular direction. (Ori Pomerantz, no I didn’t forget “drop a Heinlein character into 1984.” I just need to get faster at writing, again.)
BUT in this case, even while stealing another’s plot point by point and coloring by numbers, something real, something that only this author could possibly think belongs in that book dropped in.
And that portion shines like a jewel amid the muck.
Writer is what you ARE. Don’t prostitute your work with writing by numbers. Yes, a lot of us did it in the bad old days, because what we wrote was a negotiation between us and what the publisher would take (and sometimes the negotiation was entirely inside our heads.) but TRUST someone who’s done it, please: writing to market kills. It kill whatever in you is striving to speak and tell stories. I’m still recovering from years of doing it, which is why I’m so fargain slow. And some writers never come back from it.
But we have indie now, and there’s no excuse. Writing is what you ARE. Don’t prostitute your soul because you think “this will sell better.”
Write with what you are. With everything you are, good and bad. Forget writing what you know. Write what you ARE. Let all the elements you love and hate and which make your pulse speed up fall in, however transformed by world and setting and idea.
Terry Pratchett, who certainly should know, wrote “Success comes from being yourself as hard as you can.”
Listen to the man.