Today in plagiarism: Assassin of Secrets

If you haven’t heard, a new spy novel, Assassin of Secrets by Q.R. Markham, has been yanked from the shelves in the U.S. and had its U.K. publication canceled. That’s because it’s the biggest stitch-up in decades. And by stitch-up I mean a piece of plagiarism so thorough that it’s not even a novel in its own right but a quilt knitted together from James Bond and Robert Ludlum books.

James Bond’s words live twice in plagiarised novel.

Assiduous sleuthing by James Bond fans has forced QR Markham’s newly published spy thriller Assassin of Secrets to be pulled from shelves after it was discovered that it was lifted almost wholesale from an amalgamation of other novels, including 007 titles.

The novel by QR Markham – an alias for Brooklyn bookseller and poet Quentin Rowan – was published last week in the US and was due out this week in the UK. The story of “top operative” Jonathan Chase, who will “protect and serve his country at all costs” as he battles “shadowy organisation” the Zero Directorate who are “kidnapping, interrogating and murdering spies”, it had reaped a host of pre-publication praise, described as an “instant classic [which] takes on the greatest spy thrillers of the cold war and doesn’t just hold its own, but wins” by the author Jeremy Duns, and given a starred review from US book bible Kirkus, which described it as “a dazzling, deftly controlled debut that moves through familiar territory with wry sophistication”.

The territory, alas, turned out to be all too familiar, and after the plagiarism was uncovered by online commenters on a James Bond forum, Assassin of Secrets was withdrawn from sale in the US – its American publisher Little, Brown is offering a refund to customers who bought it – while its UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton is also pulling the novel.

The New Yorker has more (Q.R. Markham’s Plagiarism Puzzle) and wonders if Assassin of Secrets is “an elaborate ruse.”

In other words, was this some bizarre joke by the author and his publishers, to gin up publicity? Was Assassin of Secrets some form of meta-commentary on spy fiction, or a post-modern prank  — the literary version of Joaquin Phoenix growing a beard and pretending to be crazy?

No.

Little, Brown has withdrawn the book in the U.S., and Hodder has canceled British publication. That could mean fifty to a hundred grand in publishers’ costs down the drain. And the authors Markham got to blurb the book have been left hanging in the wind. Both Jeremy Duns and Duane Swierczynski have been caught flatfooted, feeling embarrassed and angry and duped.

I’ve read a lot of online commentary asking how publishers and reviewers failed to spot that the book was full of stolen material – sentences, paragraphs, entire pages lifted verbatim from other works. Some commenters cite this case as proof of “publishers’ stupidity.” (Generally followed by, “Nobody will publish my masterpiece, but they put out this trash.”) But in fact Markham was clever enough to steal from novels that are decades old. Even professional editors and spy novelists steeped in the works of the genre didn’t recognize 30- or 40-year-old bits of text. As for the authors who blurbed the book, they got burned. (And when Jeremy Duns figured it out, he’s the one who alerted Hodder.) But I see how it happened. Established publishers were putting out the book. That served as a form of quality control. A debut novel, from Little, Brown? You assume it’s authentic. And that assumption is reasonable. You don’t expect to be tricked.

Some commenters also want to know why Little, Brown — and every other publisher out there — doesn’t run every prospective novel through a software program that checks for plagiarism. Because they don’t. And if they start to do so, it’ll mean that trust has completely collapsed between authors and publishers. Frankly, I hope we don’t end up there. If we do, thank this jackass Markham. Which, by the way, isn’t even his real name.

I also wonder why he did it. Sewing together an entire novel-length work from other books, and having it cohere into a story that reviewers praise, seems like it would take massive effort and skill. And he was taking such a risk. Why didn’t he take another form of risk, one that didn’t entail the possibility for utter ruin, and write his own book?

Oh, right. Jackass.

12 responses to “Today in plagiarism: Assassin of Secrets

  1. Wow. That’s a stunning display of arrogance on Markham’s part, to think that no one would catch on.

  2. I always thought this is exactly how TV writers work. :>)

  3. License to Pil fer

  4. The whole thing is utterly bizarre. I keep trying to imagine the time and effort – and let’s face it, the skill – that’s required to stitch together a coherent novel from what might be hundreds of excerpts from other books. Much harder than writing one from scratch, I’d say. The fact that it garnered such praise suggests that the end result was pretty seamless, and that Markham made a lot of astute choices with regard to character, plot, setting, etc. Is it that he possesses all the skills of a writer except for the ability to write?

    I suspect Markham will be only too happy to jump on the suggestions that it was an elaborate hoax or a post-modern commentary, but for that to work his agents and publishers would’ve needed to be in on it from the start. It doesn’t seem that they are, so it’s essentially fraud. He’s breached the principle of utmost good faith that’s essential in any business relationship, and his publishers should go after him for reimbursement of the money they’ve lost on this.

  5. This reminds me of a funny line i heard (and appropriated) a long time ago. “I have written millions of words. Now if only I could string them together in a coherent story.” :>)

  6. I would imagine Jeremy Duns is incredibly angry and embarrassed about this – I have been reading his campaign against Johann Hari’s alleged plagiarism on both his blog and Twitter for ages, so to be caught out by this would not please him.

  7. DJ: Jeremy writes about it on his blog with characteristic insight and thoughtfulness. And in an update, he talks about Markham’s email apology to him — Highway Robbery: The Mask of Knowing in Assassin of Secrets.

  8. I’m not sure I have anything new to say on this topic, but I always thought this is exactly how TV writers work. Screenwriters have it even easier. They just re-make everything. (Footloose? Really?) Hollywood is as empty headed as it gets these days. License to Pil fer!

    That’s a stunning display of arrogance on Markham’s part, to think that no one would catch on. The whole thing is utterly bizarre. I keep trying to imagine the time and effort – and let’s face it, the skill – that’s required to stitch together a coherent blog post from what might be several excerpts from other posts. Much harder than writing one from scratch, I’d say.

    I would imagine Jeremy Duns is incredibly angry and embarrassed about this. Jeremy writes about it on his blog with characteristic insight and thoughtfulness.

    I have written millions of words. Now if only I could string them together in a coherent story. (Apologies to the giants upon whose shoulders I stand. I couldn’t resist.)

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