The strange and creepy disclosure about would-be spy novelist Q.R. Markham strikes chords. Markham, whose real name is Quentin Rowan, managed to patch together a complete and well-received espionage novel, Assassin of Secrets, by stealing passages, scenes and characters from masters of the genre, changing only character names in some cases. The Reluctant Habits blog is compiling the offenses, and they’re adding up quick.
Some want to call it a sorry form of sampling, except this was subterfuge. When Steve Martin did it in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, it was near brilliant and a funny homage. Martin called his effort what it was.
Markham, he simply stole. The publisher, Little, Brown imprint Mulholland Books, yanked the book right at publication. Others have covered this from various angles. Spy novelist Jeremy Duns had praised Markham’s book in a book jacket blurb and then, horribly, discovered on an online forum that readers were unmasking Markham’s underhanded ruse. Duns was the one who alerted Mulholland Books, and writes about being bamboozled with admirable candor. Meanwhile, The New Yorker suggests that the Markham ploy may prove a puzzle, while thriller author Meg Gardiner suggests that there’s no mystery here. Markham, who Gardiner says could have spent the effort actually writing a novel rather than stealing from many, may simply be a “jackass.”
I have a related take: Q.R. Markham is Rupert Pupkin. In Martin Scorsese’s sharp and dark comedy The King of Comedy (1983), delusional wannabe comedian Pupkin (Robert De Niro) craves attention so bad that he ends up kidnapping America’s show biz legend, top TV host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) and holding Langford hostage until his demand is met. Pupkin’s urgent need? Appearing on Langford’s show to do a monologue, for all of captive America to see. If only for one night.
If this New York Daily News story is a good indicator, Pupkin — I mean Markham — felt great pressure by the hallowed Brooklyn culture surrounding him. Working in a Park Slope bookstore while trying to write literary novels, Markham saw fellow writer types get anointed by the publishing gods just as other literary luminaries such as Paul Auster frequented his shop (as if to rub it in!). Our man in Brooklyn Markham craved that success, so he set to work on his great American rip-off.
I get the frustration. I’ve been writing for years. I wrote a comic literary novel, and tried a dark noir thriller fueled by anger at the world. Neither went anywhere. Other manuscripts stayed in the drawer and finally made it to the trash. But that’s the way it is. It’s the life. And the old axiom is true: When shitty things happen, just get back to writing. That’s what writers do, whether they’re a semi-struggling one like me or a heavyweight. My agent is a trooper and sticks with me, and I stick with him. As most writers will tell you, I’m lucky to even have one. It’s a lottery right on down the line. Meanwhile you don’t get time for much else, certainly not for plagiarizing. This is the closest thing to a true blog post I’ve done in a while.
Markham gave in to a world where the right attention means everything, and it doesn’t let him off the hook. I probably align with Ms. Gardiner’s take, as would many writers and authors. What really irks is that Markham did much of his stealing from one of the best and most overlooked espionage writers, Charles McCarry. McCarry is a favorite. The writer’s author, a maestro like McCarry writes on regardless of interest. Attention isn’t an end goal. The real authors just want to be able to do what they do for a living. They do it for the love of doing it, whether readers find their craft good or bad. Sadly, our fools Quentin and Rupert never knew that, and their dumbass actions prevent them from ever knowing what true love feels like. They not only gave up. They did the only thing worse. They cheated.
As I write this, I find via Jeremy Dun’s Twitter feed that someone else has arrived at the same conclusion. None other than a fake Sean Connery account, @BigTamConnery, says it best: “Markham ish not even worthy to be called the Rupert Pupkin of Shpy ficshion.”
Today many are scrambling to snap up those copies of Assassin of Secrets that made it out into the world, which of course sent sales soaring.
My advice? Go get yourself a Charles McCarry novel instead.
UPDATE, Nov. 14: The wanton plagiarizer himself, Q.R. Markham aka Quentin Rowan, surfaced today to answer some probing questions from Jeremy Duns. Markham's confession — if true — is telling, and a little pathetic, but it should never let him off the hook. Find the questions and answers by scrolling down to the comments of Duns' latest post. Lots of good comments there, too. As for Duns, I can imagine he just wants to get back to writing what he writes. I know I would.