Saturday, 21 August 2010

Title Fight

One of my favourite novels is I, Lucifer. It was the work of Peter O'Donnell. You too may have recently read I, Lucifer but the trouble is, there's every chance the book you read was by someone called Glen Duncan. Now I'm quite willing to believe that Glen Duncan is a nice fellow and who knows, perhaps a very able writer. But that begs the question why anyone would filch a wonderful title from a fellow artist. And if the writer had no idea that it had been filched (good word, filched), then why in the name of all the gods didn't said writer's editors or publisher spot the duplication? Or was it simply too good a title and nobody thought they had to take the original seriously because it was 'just' a Modesty Blaise novel. I snuck those quotation marks in because any fair-minded person would concede that Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin are up there with Travis McGee and Meyer or Aubrey and Maturin. Anyway, when I heard that this book this new book with its borrowed title was coming out I doted on fantasies of acquiring the rights to the Peter O'Donnell original and releasing it at the same time. With a great big publicity push, to create confusion and sabotage the launch of the pretender. I'll read Glen Duncan's I, Lucifer one day but first I'll have to simmer down. There's no doubt that I, Lucifer is a brilliant title. And it was Peter O'Donnell who thought of it, in 1965. The English Assassin is another brilliant title. Michael Moorcock thought of it and used it in 1972. In fact , it's such a good title that it was recently appropriated for a novel by Daniel Silva. Like Peter O'Donnell's book, Moorcock's original was a kind of spy thriller. It too featured one of the mutant offspring of James Bond (in this case, Jeremy Cornelius). Reprehensibly (I think that's not too strong a word), Silva or someone at his publishers, has decided to recycle Moorcock's great title, and for a spy novel, too. Okay, Moorcock's take on a spy novel was decidedly surreal, a meltdown in fact, but it's still a bit much. Glen Duncan at least had the decency to carry the purloined goods some distance before trying to peddle them — so to speak. Again Daniel Silva may be a prince of a fellow and may have written a fine novel. But again I'm going to have to simmer down a mite before I can bring myself to read it. I repeat, these writers may be talented, intelligent, engaging chaps who have written fine books. That's certainly true of China Mieville. But as with Mieville, this no way absolves them of what one would have thought would be their duty as writers themselves to refrain from pillaging the work of other writers. It's no defence to say "it's just the title." The title is in some ways the crucial thing, and a great one is hard to come by. Speaking of great titles how about King Rat? Terrific title, terrific book. But is was written in 1960 by James Clavell. And, oh wait a minute, there seems to be a novel on the bookshelves now called King Rat. But it's by China Mieville. Mieville is a writer whom I respect. Yet it's hard to believe he was unaware of Clavell's book, enduring bestseller that it was. (Its lack of obscurity was enhanced by the outstanding film adapted from it; nice John Barry Score, great performance from George Segal). So, just what the blue blazes was going on in a writer's mind when he chooses to make of with another writer's title? Is that a gleam I see in the eye of Jeffrey Archer? Would it be petty minded and tasteless to remind everyone at this point that Lord Archer is a convicted felon? I think that's the right term. Anyway, Archer may well be a charming chap. His millionaire's eyrie certainly has a nice view of the Thames. But still it's going to be a cold day in hell before I read his novel Paths of Glory with its stolen title. For the original go to Humphrey Cobb's superb 1930s tale of war (made into a stunning Kubrick film). Before closing, in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I've had two stage plays produced. The title of the first, arrived at after much soul searching, heart ache and head banging (Dark Ride, anyone? How about Death Etc?) was End of the the Night. Which, despite being a standard meteorological term sounds suspiciously like The End of the Night, a stunning 1960 suspense thriller by John D. MacDonald. As I mentioned, a good title is hard to come by. My second play was called Under the Eagle which I later discovered to be a novel about a Roman Legion by Simon Scarrow published in 2000.


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