The other day, I posted this dismissal of Raymond Knight Read’s The Third Gunman which is really nothing more than a rewriting of John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, and then John Grant over at his superb Noirish blog posted this look at the 1934 film The Ninth Guest which follows rather closely the premise of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None…except the film predates Christie by five years, so technically ATTWN follows it closely, much to my amazement.
Now, you can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? Because there’s also this debate over the precise authorship of The Hound of the Baskervilles — meaning that two of the most famous books in the litany of crime fiction have legitimate issues for their precise origins and attributed authorship to be questioned. And the issue raises its head again here with Hilary St. George Saunders’ The Sleeping Bacchus and its startling similarities to Pierre Boileau’s Repos de Bacchus. There will doubtless be others both in and out of this genre, but it’s inevitably got me thinking on that most insoluble of debates about what constitutes an original work.
Inevitably some aspect of reality is going to creep into this type of fiction; Christie famously used real-life cases and crimes to inspire the background of many of her books — other will be able to cite chapter and verse, but I seem to remember a famous child murderer being a large part of the character in Murder on the Orient Express, for one, and there are other, more fully-mined, examples that don’t bear further repeating here. There is, unquestionably, a point at which simply doing an In Cold Blood is perhaps taking it a little far, but weaving in some semblance of reality is often what makes books feel urgent and relevant. Witness the griping about taxes or rationing in ww2-set novels, or the background of the Wall Street Crash in a lot of American crime from the late 1920s and early 1930s; these are situations that people at the time could relate to, and help us now put these books in an appropriate context.
All good, and lifting this sort of background from real life isn’t the kind of thing I think anyone is likely to have difficulty with from an originality perspective. But when it comes to actions over situations, the issue becomes somewhat murkier.
Let’s start small and pick a common example: a woman believed to be unmarried actually turning out to secretly have a husband as one of the key plot developments in a mystery novel. Clearly this is a motif which can have a huge effect on the lines of a particular story: it can explain potentially-suspicious late night visits or phone calls which were intended to throw our confidence in that character into question. Equally, if reversed — she claims to be married and in fact isn’t — it opens up a lot of potentialities for her actions up to that point of revelation. It’s a human enough situation which, in the correct context and with the right characters around her to necessitate the secrecy for whatever reasons, isn’t going to have anyone crying “plagiarist!” any time soon. Rinse and repeat this for a bastard child, or a faked illness, or whatever you will — this sort of thing is purely a tool in this genre, and its reuse is no more plagiarism than is architectural styles being compared for using cement to hold their bricks together, or one artist copying another because they used the same russet shade in their most famous works.
Expanding it up, then: if that woman’s secret husband is an actor who was panned by a critic and so fled the stage in despair and became a nervous wreck, and she is secretly wooing the critic so that she can lure him to his death as revenge (yeah, I know it’s terrible, this is why I merely blog about rather than write detective fiction)…well that central scheme and motive used in two books starts to look a little more suspicious. If in one case she pushes him over a cliff and in another she sabotages the brakes of his racecar (he’s also a dashing racing driver, naturally) then the divergence makes this similarity to that point more acceptable. But if in both cases she lures him to a house party in the country and shoots him with a poison-tipped arrow while dabbling in archery at the country fair and it turns out she was secretly an Olympic-standard archer who was only prevented from attending the 1936 games by her husband’s breakdown (I’m starting to think I should write this book…) then author #2 is going to find themselves under a microscope again.
So where does it start and end? Yukito Ayatsuji’s hugely enjoyable The Decagon House Murders — published last year in English by Locked Room International — isolates a group of people on an island and kills them off one-by-one, but it self-consciously references Christie’s more famous and earlier novel which does the same thing and so makes it a citation that acknowledges the influence rather than courting accusations of outright theft. At no point in And Then There Were None does Blore turn to Vera and go “Well, a rummy thing this, but it’s rather like film The Ninth Guest, eh?”. And the similarities as John spells them out are undeniable, I personally can’t believe Christie wasn’t aware of the film given how closely they seem to match. I don’t mind in the least — even considering my leniency towards Dame Agatha it takes nothing away from the extra framing Christie supplied with the poem, and I don’t think anything could reduce the thrill and excitement of reading that book for the first time — but it’s such a totemic work that I haven’t been able to get this out of my head since reading John’s post.
There’s no easy answer, I know, which is why copyright law is so confoundedly tiresome (as is pretty much any legal undertaking), but I would love to know what you make of this and, since they doubtless exist, any other cases of classic crime fiction where these sorts of controversies rage. Is there a clear pattern, or a point where you can say “Yes, this is a blatant copy” but one small change stops it being so? If you have some insight on this already, I’d appreciate anything that will add to the storm of curiosity that John set brewing in my head these last two days, because I have a feeling I’ll be returning to this poorly-realised post in various ways over the coming months…
I submit cover of And The There Were None above for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Spooky House/Mansion.