Literary Imitation Is Still the Sincerest Form of Flattery ; `the Regularity of Plagiarism Cases Is One of the Defining Features of Modern Cultural Life'

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ONE GROWS used to the characterisation of distinguished writers as rip-off merchants: even so, this weekend's claim that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle not only lifted most of The Hound of the Baskervilles from his friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson, but colluded with Robinson's wife to murder him, takes the question of artistic plagiarism up to an entirely new level.

According to a former psychologist named Rodger Garrick-Steele, who has spent the last 11 years researching a mammoth expose entitled The House of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes's 1901 exploits bear "startling" similarities to Robinson's An Adventure on Dartmoor published the year before. Among other things, Mr Garrick- Steele alleges Conan Doyle had a passionate affair with Robinson's wife and, fearing both amatory and professional embarrassment, persuaded her to dose her husband with liberal amounts of laudanum. Robinson eventually died in 1907.

While none of this sounds especially plausible - the Sherlock Holmes Society has already dismissed the thesis as a fabrication - it is by no means unexpected. The regularity with which celebrated writers and musicians entangle themselves in plagiarism suits is one of the defining features of modern cultural life. Without going to the reference books, I can think of half-a- dozen novelists who have been accused of professional larceny.

David Lodge, for example, had a painful run-in a few years ago with a romantic fictionereen who noted an odd familiarity in the plot and construction of his novel Nice Work, while Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden - in which a gang of children conceal their mother's corpse in the cellar - was thought to bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to Julian Gloag's Our Mother's House, published a decade and a half before. Even among this month's bestsellers, Oliver Russell, the garrulous talking head of Julian Barnes's Love etc sounds like a character called Gregory Service in Martin Amis's Success.

In literature, happily, claims of pilfering are usually hard to uphold. Grey areas abound, there is no copyright on images (Martin Amis once complained that the American writer, Jacob Epstein, had "borrowed", among much else, his comparison of ejaculation to toothpaste coming out of a tube) and only word-for-word copying will make the charge stick. In the more direct world of the pop melody, on the other hand, burglary is that much more clear-cut. …