#132: When Inspiration Becomes Theft



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.

ATTWN coverInevitably 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.

Decagon House MurdersSo 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.

33 thoughts on “#132: When Inspiration Becomes Theft

  1. Well my mind is certainly blown with that info on And Then There Were None! Though I do think it is probably harder to write that type of plot in a book than it is do straight into film.
    You are right though it is a tricky area of when something stops being original and becomes a plagiarism. I think it is in the details though and in how the similar components are used or added to. Frank Richardson’s The Mayfair Mystery which involves body swapping, yet I wouldn’t suggest suing Freaky Friday because it includes such a phenomenon too. Equally I think it’s okay if someone does lift something from another book but then acknowledges it and does something different with it or plays around with it. Although it is not fully acknowledged by Haynes – her The Abbey Court Murder does borrow a lot from Lady Audley’s Secret and gives it a different twist. Though of course there will be similarities between detective novels because being part of a genre there are common tropes and narrative arcs – though it does depend on how they are used.


    • Frank Richardson’s The Mayfair Mystery which involves body swapping, yet I wouldn’t suggest suing Freaky Friday because it includes such a phenomenon too.

      What Freaky Friday was definitely ripping off was F. Anstey’s Vice Versa (1882), which had been filmed at least once and I think several times before the Disney riff came along.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. We’ve had this conversation before on Facebook, where you really are missed, JJ. But I understand your not wanting to be inundated with “friends” announcing in their status of the moment that they are eating toast. (Followed by 900 “likes” and a host of questions and comments: “What kind of toast?” “I love toast!” “Anyone who eats toast in bed . . . “)

    Kate, Christie didn’t base her plot on a movie. This was a book first: (1930’s The Invisible Host, by Gwen Bristow.) I think I read it a million years ago. Who knows if Christie read it? Who really cares? The other interesting thing is that Ellery Queen was working on a very similar plot for his newest book . . . until And Then There Were None came out. I find it just as unlikely that Christie and Queen were chatting together beforehand, and yet these great minds thought alike.

    If you read Martin Edwards’ book about the Detection Club, everyone seemed to be writing the same plots, each with their own variations. JJ, you mentioned Christie’s propensity for taking a slice from true crime. (That “child murderer” you mentioned was the kidnapper in the Charles Lindbergh case, a HUGE story at the time Orient Express came out.) Lots and lots of mystery writers did the same thing. Many had their own Crippen story, or their own take on the case of Constance Kent.

    Christie “stole” from herself many times. How many variations on the “murder couple” can you find? And yet, she manages to make most of them seem fresh. I’m (sadly) re-reading By the Pricking of My Thumbs for Goodreads, and the opening chapter (about the old lady and the dead baby in the chimney) had appeared at least twice before in Christie’s books. Here it was finally developed into an overlong, frankly tedious novel.

    If Christie DID “steal” the idea of Ten Little Whathaveyous from Gwen Bristow or any of the dozens of “old dark house” mysteries strewn with corpses that were churned out in Hollywood, she managed to create the best one of them all. Her take on people stewing in their own guilt, on a psychotic Justice mowing them down, and on the psychological ramifications of all this, is so expertly done that it sort of leaves Bristow’s version in the dust.

    So everyone just relax and let me get back to putting the finishing touches on my new self-published novel, The Labradoodle of the Basketvilles. I promise you it’s a surefire hit!

    Liked by 4 people

    • If Christie DID “steal” the idea of Ten Little Whathaveyous from Gwen Bristow or any of the dozens of “old dark house” mysteries strewn with corpses that were churned out in Hollywood, she managed to create the best one of them all.

      This point is actually far more valid than most of what I wrote. As I said, the idea of it being liberally borrowed from elsewhere doesn’t phase me that much, but you’re right in that what Christie created was (probably, I’ve obviously not read or seen these others) far superior and exploited the situation to pretty much its fullest.

      Hell, I’d rather this exist liberally inspired by another source than Christie think “Hmmm, better not tread over that ground again” and leave the idea explored only to a limited extent by a less able plotter…but since the quality of ay fictional underaking is necessarily subjective, I suppose the prevailing opinion of Christie’s ‘better’ work excuses any copycat concerns, right? Or is there still an issue of at least acknowledgement to address here? Because — roughly the same plot being recycled or otherwise — these sound astonishgly similar.

      I’m just asking, like. Sheer curiosity.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The two aspects of Bristow’s story that strike me as the most similar are 1) everyone who is invited has done something “wrong,” and 2) this mysterious voice accuses them of that. What’s different – and there are a ton of differences, is 1) the killer’s motive is personal on a much more existential level in Christie; 2) all the guests are relative strangers to each other, although a few are familiar with the Judge and the Doctor; 3) the “voice” does not announce that folks are going to die in Christie, merely, “What do you have to say for yourselves?” So much of the suspense in the book is the guests figuring out what U.N. Owen’s plans are; 4) the characters in Christie are head and shoulders better developed than Bristow’s that this ludicrous Golden Age plot feels natural here; 5) the murder methods are MUCH better and scarier than electrified stereo systems!!!

        The list goes on . . .I don’t think Bristow sued Christie. I wonder if Sophocles would sue me if I decided to write my own variation on the man who married his mother . . .

        Liked by 1 person

        • I see your point, and having no experience of these others I must concede to your greater experience. It’s an interesting one, though, given how widely discussed ATTWN is that most people seem never to have heard of The Ninth Guest given their (at least superficial) similarities.

          Though I am aware that, yes, the alternative interpretation also applies: it’s because they’re only superficial similarities that nothing is said.

          Good chat.


  3. I can tell already that I’m going to be thinking about this all day, and I’ll possibly respond at length in my own blog (like I ever have time for THAT! LOL) but two points immediately come to mind that I wanted to mention to provoke your readers ;-). One is that to my mind John Dickson Carr’s “The Black Spectacles” (Problem of the Green Capsule) contains its only flaw when it attempts to drag in Christiana Edmunds — because that real-life case doesn’t relate organically to the material of the plot. And second — in the shin honkaku school in which I’ve been interested lately, exemplified by “Decagon House”, referring to other detective fiction of the past isn’t just an homage, it’s a literary trope. Look up “honkadori” in Wikipedia. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honkadori)
    By the way, Brad, you seem to be infringing on my as-yet-unpublished “Basset Hound of the Bassetvilles”!! Kindly cease and desist, etc. 😉

    Liked by 4 people

      • This reminds me of PD James throughly missing the point in her essay-book Talking About Detective Fiction where she says that “The Hound of Wimbledon Common” wouldn’t have been as effective a title…yeah, it would, if the book was as well stuctured as it is; cos it’s, like, the content of the book that gives the title its reputation.


    • Japanese fiction just gets more and more fascinating, doesn’t it? I love the fact that the shin honkaku school is so determined to reference what came before and build on it in a meaningful way. Now there’s a culture that has the right idea about detective fiction!

      And re: Green Capsule, you’re clearly mistaken — that book has not a single flaw. Anywhere. 😛

      Liked by 2 people

      • It’s hard for me to understand honkadori (pronounced, according to my brother, hon-KAH-doh-ree) but I think what is going on is that, when a Japanese writer wishes to evoke a certain feeling or concept, s/he can do so by making a specific reference to a specific work in the past that stands for that feeling or concept. So instead of saying that something makes them think of “small-town America”, they might describe it as being “Wrightsville”, and only educated readers would know the reference. The key is that if you add more of these references into your work, it’s felt to be a more literary/literate document. Works without honkadori have no resonance and are somehow cold and flat.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s the impression I got, yeah. I understand that the way you write certain words in Japanese gives them a particular meaning, so it stands to reason that the use of a combination of words can be deliberately utilised to evoke and recall a particular preceding concept or example.

          Inside shin honkaku I take this to therefore be more than a mere evocation of a concept and more the admission or deliberate acknowledgement of what has been done in this sphere before. But clearly drawing attention to it isn’t sufficient if you simply rehash it, hence my assumption that it’s done to keep in mind what pre-exists and then add to it.

          But, hey, I’m no expert on Japanese…anything. Just spinning my ignorant Western wheels here… 🙂


  4. The film The Ninth Guest is actually based on the book The Invisible Host by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning (1930). It seems that Christie was aware of the book and borrowed the idea from it for her novel ATTWN. However, she introduced a brilliant idea which is not there in The Invisible Host. It is this brilliant idea which has made her novel so memorable and famous.
    The film The Ninth Guest can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/TheNinthGuest

    Liked by 1 person

    • The film The Ninth Guest is actually based on the book The Invisible Host by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning (1930).

      And also on the play The Ninth Guest (1930) by Owen Davis. I’d assume the play is based on the book; the movie shows clear signs of stage origins, so I’d imagine the play was its main source.


  5. I read “The Invisible Host” earlier this year and it’s simply not a very good novel. Instead of an island the victims are trapped in an apartment in New Orleans and all kinds of annoying gimmicks are necessary to keep them there. Christie obviously hugely improved on this.

    There are many other examples.
    Just two I found out about recently:

    Norwegian writer Sven Elvestad’s “The Iron Chariot” predates Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” by several years and uses the same technique of making the narrator the killer.

    The trick in “Curtain” of making the detective himself commit murder has been used before, not only in the relatively well-known “Speedy Death” by Gladys Mitchell, but also in Pierre Boileau’s “Six Crimes Sans Assassin”.

    This seems to happen often in movies. “The Sixth Sense” and “The Others”; “Triangle” and “Timecrimes”; “Enemy” and “The Double”; “Centurion” and “The Eagle Of The Ninth” … superficially all very similar, but actually quite different in their handling of their subject.

    I can’t remember who said this: “Good artists borrow, great artists steal” – but there might be some truth to it.

    It might be easier to come up with a great idea, than to think this idea through to a satisfying conclusion and deliver on it.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Pingback: Intertextuality and detective fiction | Noah's Archives

  7. Popping in late. I haven’t heard it mentioned anywhere (though I’m sure it has been) but as I was recently rereading, after a million years, Christie’s 1939 novel, Sad Cypress, I became more and more intrigued by the similarities to a well known mystery from 1930.

    A young woman is on trial for having poisoned someone she supposedly hated. A young doctor, at the trial, falls in love with her and is determined to get her off. He hires Hercule Poirot to look into the mystery.

    Turns out the actual murderer administered the poison by sharing a pot of tea with the victim and then secretly took an emetic and threw up, and the motive was the unexpected inheritance of a great fortune from a dying old woman.

    After her acquittal, the ex-defendant goes away to get away from it all, but Poirot assures the lovestruck doctor, whose name is Peter Lord, she will eventually turn to him in GRATITUDE for having saved her from the gallows.

    (So blatant. Could it have been a challenge bandied about in the Detection Club?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • How have I never noticed this?! To be fair, I’m not a fan of the author of that book, and hadn’t read it at the time of read Sad Cypress, but it’s surely a deliberate recycling…perhaps the naming is deliberate as an admission of the basic idea coming from elsewhere.

      Damn, I’m starting to wonder how many of her plots Dame Agatha actually did come up with herself… 🙂



        Christie may have borrowed the idea, but her story is much much better. The explanation of how the culprit avoided the poisoning is utterly ludicrous in the 1930 mystery. ( The culprit did it for 2 long years, totally unmindful of the ill-effects !)

        Liked by 1 person

        • Christie may have borrowed the idea, but her story is much much better.

          And yet the 1930 mystery is regarded as one of the great classics of the genre while Christie’s novel has no such distinction. Funny, that.


            • I see the similarity in the murder method and in the fact that the wrong person is on trial for the murder and the detective is trying to prove her innocence. I do think, based on what I’ve read about The Detection Club, that writers discussed things like this all the time, and that various murder methods might have been bandied about and tried out by more than one author. I wonder if it was a sort of competition, but I think it was friendly enough. To my knowledge, Christie was never sued for plots that resembled other plots. And while we have discussed how ATTWN resembles Bristow’s The Ninth Guest in many surface ways, we also know that Ellery Queen was writing a very similar plot and abandoned it when he learned of Christie’s novel.

              The type of poison in Sad Cypress isn’t arsenic, but morphine, and I have a feeling there was better medical evidence that Christie’s choice would work here. Plus, the rest of the circumstances, characters, and solution are quite different. I agree with Santosh that they are better, but I admit I’m no fan of Sayers.

              Don’t tell JJ about the 17th century adventure novel of a squire who tries to find out who drove his mistress to suicide via blackmail and who dies before he can reveal what he has discovered. The killer is James, the shepard. The title is The Foule Murther of Sir Reginald Ackroyd. I think Christie read it!!! 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: #208: The Iron Chariot (1909) by Stein Riverton is Now Republished by Abandoned Bookshop! | The Invisible Event

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