Recently book publisher Little, Brown recalled 6,500 copies of “Assassins of Secrets,” a spy novel by Q.R. Markham, after discovering that the author had plagiarized material from several well-known novelists, including Robert Ludlum and John Gardner. Little, Brown didn’t go into detail when this was announced, but online sources cited at least 13 extended passages that were lifted verbatim. This author (or copier might be a more appropriate job title) deserves the mass pulping for being such a putz. He/she is an amateur. Everybody knows you don’t steal the queen’s tiara, then try to sell it as is. You take out the stones, melt down the gold, and sell the pieces. Jeez, doesn’t anyone watch those old heist movies anymore?
Pablo Picasso supposedly said, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” But the great ones don’t steal the whole building, they steal the blueprints. Take the recipe, not the cake. The gift that keeps on giving. Duh!
I’m a thief, too. I admit it. I even tell people I’m a thief. All writers are thieves. Some are just better at it than others.
I once met a blow-hard lawyer who bragged that he had loads of great stories and suggested that we write a book together. The way he saw it, he’d dictate and I’d write it all down. (I just love it when wannabe co-authors characterize the writer’s craft as stenography and spell-checking.) He started to tell me about an accused drug dealer he once represented who he had performed a voodoo ceremony in his office. As he started giving me graphic details, I held up my hand like a traffic cop to stop him. “If you tell me, it’s mine,” I said.
He was flummoxed. “What do you mean?”
“If you tell me the story, I will take it.”
That shut him up. I was blunt, but at least I was honest.
So now I think it’s time to come clean and ‘fess up to my long list of literary thefts. I will swear on a stack of Bibles that I have never purloined anything word-for-word from another writer. But I have “borrowed” their techniques.
Top of the list has to be master crime novelist Elmore Leonard (“Get Shorty,” “Kill Shot,” “Out of Sight”). I’ve burgled his literary house more than a few times, mainly taking his gift for spare prose, which gives readers just the facts, or as he puts it, leaves out the parts readers will skip. I also lifted his knack for injecting humor into a story without turning it into farce by putting real people in crazy situations rather than creating clownish characters in wacky plots. While I was at it, I grabbed a bit of his magic with dialogue. How a character talks will tell a reader so much more than paragraph after paragraph of description.
Same deal with George V. Higgins (“The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “The Digger’s Game”). He could tell an entire story in dead-on authentic dialogue. Yeah, I’ve been to his house, too.
Julia Markus (“American Rose”) is another one of my favorites. Spare prose, no excess, no curlicues, highly effective. Her house is well-worth breaking into.
In terms of character I have to admit crime novelist Chester Himes (“Cotton Comes to Harlem,” “The Real Cool Killers”) is my principal target. I am a repeat offender when it comes to him. It’s no coincidence that my two fiction series have pairs of protagonists (FBI agents Gibbons and Tozzi in the “Bad” books and parole officers Loretta Kovacs and Frank Marvelli in the series that starts with “Devil’s Food”). These duos were modeled after Himes’s NYC detectives, the inimitable Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones.
Richard Price (“Clockers,” “Lush Life”) has a mansion I’ve been trying to break into for years. This guy has so much worth stealing it isn’t funny—his ability to create a whole world that his characters inhabit, his keen eye for the telling details, his understanding of how people think and act and lie and lie to themselves. I am so envious. One of these days I just might write one of those big sprawling books, but not before I get my hands on Price’s stuff.
There’s a lot to steal from Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay,” “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”), but the gem that always catches my eye is his use of simile and metaphor. When he compares someone or something to something else, it’s always an image that adds to the reader’s understanding in a subversive, understated way, infusing meaning through association.
When it come to nailing tart, wise-ass private-eye tone, most mystery writers genuflect at the altar of Raymond Chandler (“The Long Goodbye,” “Farewell, My Lovely”), and I’m no exception, but the writer who raised the ante for me is John D. MacDonald in his “Travis McGee” books (“Cinnamon Skin,” “The Green Ripper”). Sure, McGee is sexist and a throwback to a cruder standard of manhood, but that’s part of his retro charm. From time to time I sneak on board the Busted Flush and rifle through the drawers and cabinets to remind me how a good character not only drives the plot, he owns it.
To pry open a character’s head to show what makes him tick, I always go back to the domiciles of Ruth Rendell in her psychological thrillers (“A Demon in My View,” “The Tree of Hands”) and Phillip Roth (“The Ghost Writer,” “Portnoy’s Complaint”). These two, each in their own way, paint wonderful psychological portraits of their characters, masterpieces I hang on my wall for inspiration.
Nobody uses odors and aromas to evoke a place and time like Gore Vidal (“Lincoln,” “Burr”). I snatched that trick from him.
Since I also write crime non-fiction, I have to steal for two. Lots of true-crime writers cite Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” as the big score, but I lick my chops for Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song.” Crime reporting doesn’t get any better than that. If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best.
I learned a lot from my old college writing teacher Donald Barthelme (“City Life,” “Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts”). One thing I pocketed from his desk at the English Department was his deft use of the absurd. He typically builds his short stories on an off-kilter premise, then follows the illogical to its logical conclusion, daring the reader to deal with it. I should use more of that.
A long time ago I tiptoed in striped rainbow-colored socks into the den of Dr. Seuss (“The Cat in the Hat,” “Yertle the Turtle”) and ogled at his ability to play with the sounds of words and spin a tale like writing a song. It’s pure genius. Someday I might write a book about a detective whose hat is old, his teeth are gold, he has a gun he likes to hold.
My literary warehouse is crammed with more stuff than I could ever use, and if you read my books, you might say, dude, you haven’t used half of the crap you covet. True. Guilty as charged. But I’ve got a few more books in me, and I’ll use whatever I can ‘cause it’s there for the taking. Just keep your hands off my stuff—unless you credit me.