The Plagiarist's Tale

By Widdicombe, Lizzie | The New Yorker, February 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Plagiarist's Tale


Widdicombe, Lizzie, The New Yorker


&Spy novels embrace cliches--the double agent, the bomb-rigged briefcase--and "Assassin of Secrets," published last fall, made a virtue of this tendency, piling one trope onto another to create a story that rang with wry knowingness. The book is set in the midst of the Cold War. The protagonist is Jonathan Chase, a suave secret agent with a background in martial arts--part James Bond, part Jason Bourne. In the first chapter, Chase meets Frankie Farmer, a sexy former field agent who presents him with "personalized matching luggage" loaded with surveillance gear. They head back to her place, where Chase eyes the water bed while Farmer slips into something more comfortable:

Then he saw her . . . a small light dim but growing to illuminate her as she stood naked but for a thin, translucent nightdress; her hair undone and falling to her waist--hair and the thin material moving and blowing as though caught in a silent zephyr. Chase caught hold of her, pulled her close. She slid her hands to his shoulders, gently pushing him away.

"What's it like to kill somebody? They say you've had to kill a lot of people during your time in the Division."

"Then they shouldn't talk so much."

The author of "Assassin of Secrets" was a thirty-five-year-old debut novelist with the pen name Q. R. Markham. Just before the book's publication, in November, there were signs that it would be a hit: it had blurbs from the spy novelists Duane Swierczynski and Jeremy Duns ("instant classic") and glowing early reviews. Kirkus pronounced it "a dazzling, deftly controlled debut," and Publishers Weekly wrote, "The obvious Ian Fleming influence just adds to the appeal." On the James Bond fan site commanderbond.net, someone linked to an excerpt, which the publisher, Little, Brown, had posted online, and wrote, "Anyone read this novel? I'm ordering it next month . . . it's very Bondian."

But, as in a thriller, no sooner had the book's trajectory been established than it was reversed. That day, another Bond fan wrote to the thread, "Why order a copy? Just read chapter 4 of 'License Renewed' "--by John Gardner, who continued the Bond series after Ian Fleming's death. "It's all there, the 'matched luggage' . . . 'What's it like to kill a man?' the son et lumiere at 'Frankie's' flat--entire paragraphs copied verbatim from John Gardner's text."

Like a spy hiding in plain sight, "Assassin of Secrets" appeared to be a bizarre aberration: an homage to Bond that plagiarized Bond. Jeremy Duns, alerted by the Bond forum, began checking the text, plugging phrases into Google Books. He found a sentence from the American spy writer Charles McCarry, and another from Robert Ludlum, the author of the "Bourne" books. "I quickly realized that the whole novel was 'written' this way," Duns wrote on his blog. He informed the book's British publisher, and on November 8th, five days after the book's publication, Little, Brown recalled all sixty-five hundred copies and issued a press release: "It is with deep regret that we have published a book that we can no longer stand behind."

By then, Edward Champion, the editor of the culture Web site Reluctant Habits, had joined the hunt. Champion had exposed plagiarism before, and he told me that "generally people stick with one source, or two or three." In "Assassin of Secrets," he found thirty-four instances of plagiarism in the first thirty-five pages, taken from sources ranging from multiple Bond continuation novels to James Bamford's 2001 nonfiction book about the National Security Agency to Geoffrey O'Brien's 1988 account of the nineteen-sixties, "Dream Time."

The inquiry quickly turned to the writer. Someone wrote on the Bond forum, "So who is the author/plagiarist?" An author's note described an eccentric literary prodigy:

Q. R. Markham has been a parks department employee, laundry-truck driver, door-to-door knife salesman, telemarketer, rock'n'roll bassist, literary scout, book-reviewer, small business owner, and consultant. …

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