Pity poor Q.R. Markham. Plagiarism’s current pin-up should have heeded the Delphic words of Wham! George Michael, that short-shorted, hairy-chested soothsayer, put it perfectly: If you’re going to do it, do it right.
Markham’s problem was not that he stole someone else’s ideas (or in the case of his novel Assassin of Secrets, the exact words from the books of Charles McCarry, Raymond Benson, and six straight pages from John Gardner’s post-Fleming James Bond novel Licence Renewed). It was that he did it crassly. If you are going to plagiarise, plagiarise right.
Had he just nicked a few ideas he would have been in good company. Books constantly recycle what went before them. As one rather influential book once said, there is nothing new under the sun. As proof, writers have taken that proclamation as gospel and have been rewriting that very same book in different guises ever since.
For centuries novels have dressed up old stories in fancy new togs, provide new backdrops, or throw in the occasional zombie to fool the reader that what they have in their hands is something entirely new. Plots are like Barbie dolls: there might only be seven basic shapes, but the accessories are infinite.
Anyway, this might be too late for Markham, but for you dear reader, here are some brief ever-evolving rules (please add your own) rules on how to plagiarise and get away with it:
1 Transpose the story to Ireland – A draughty rock on the edge of Europe full of porcelain-skinned walking freckles is absolutely nothing like a sun-smooched land commanded by chiselled Spartan warriors and raven-haired beauties. Therefore if you take a swashbuckling ancient Greek epic and rewrite it as Irishmen eating breakfast in Dublin, no one will notice. See: The Odyssey by Homer/Ulysses by James Joyce
2 Write fan fiction disguised as literature – Take familiar characters from one of your favourite novels and fill in the blanks. Always handy if said book features mad characters locked in attics with exotic back stories. Make sure the author is long dead before attempting this, just to make sure. See: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte/Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
3 Insist no one talks about it – If the most memorable turn of phrase in your novel is one that demands silence, what better way to prevent people from noticing its similarities to one written by a Scottish shepherd in the 19th century. Also, if a film is made of it, ensure Brad Pitt plays your charismatic Mephistopheles lurking in the mind of the lead character. His prettified extreme violence plays much better with focus groups than the disturbing Calvinist fanaticism in the original. See: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg/Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
4 Distract people with the undead – Select a much loved book, particularly one with a strong female lead in a bonnet whose wit and insight will last throughout the ages, and add a zombie hoard. Be so brazen and post-modern about the literary mash-up that people still buy the increasingly terrible follow-ups. It is the plagiarism equivalent of distracting a child with one hand whilst punching them in the stomach with the other. See: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen/Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Graeme-Smith