‘Stealing’ Solutions

And I’m back—after, wow, more than a year now. Who could have imagined what we’re going through now back in March ’19? Où sont les neiges de l’année dernière?

Anyway, some housekeeping: the Columbo mystery in that long-ago last post remains unsolved, unfortunately. I’m still waiting for that flash of revelation, to no avail thus far…

Now on to the subject at hand. I’ve recently been watching some great mystery shows—Death in Paradise’s 9th (!) season and some reruns of Monk—and it got me wondering: when is it OK for a mystery-writer to ‘steal’ a solution from another mystery-writer?

SPOILERS for Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House.

Many writers, for example, have borrowed set-up and solution to Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House: Murderer X apparently kills Person A by accident, in an attempt actually to kill Person B. In reality, B = X and wanted to kill A the entire time.

Whether or not that solution started with Christie, who used it multiple (maybe too many?) times, we see it reused in Ellery Queen, Christianna Brand, and tons of TV shows.

But when is that kind of borrowing OK, in your opinion? Only when the writer changes things to some degree?

Well, how about another example? Two Death in Paradise episodes reuse almost-entirely-unchanged solutions from John Dickson Carr—one from a well-known Carr novel and one from a lesser-known short story—but give them different set-ups. Similarly, the Monk episode “…Goes to the Circus” borrows a solution from a famous Christie novel. (Even Jonathan Creek, which had mostly original solutions, borrowed some a few times.) Is that OK?

I’m not sure. Of course, most (all?) classic-mystery-fans like brilliant, inventive, original solutions, but many (most?) DiP and Monk watchers probably haven’t read that many Christies or any Carrs. And the surrounding plot is different.

And what about if a writer just didn’t know his plot wasn’t original? (I don’t think that’s the case with my TV examples above, though; they’re too close.)

Would appreciate your thoughts on this. I’m just not sure.

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1 Response to ‘Stealing’ Solutions

  1. TomCat says:

    Welcome back! A quick response…

    The answer to your question lies somewhere in a gray area that needs specific examples to get an exact answer, because it’s not always outright stealing.

    For example, the Jonathan Creek episode The Scented Room undeniable lifted its plot from an Edgar Wallace short story, “The Missing Romney” (stolen painting, same motive and, most telling of all, the schoolgirls). Renwick gave it enough of a spin (such as the hiding place of the painting) to make it acceptable, but he could have been more subtle about it. A second thing you have to keep in mind is that there are certain plotting techniques that have become very common over the past 100 years. Such as the time-place replacement technique favored by certain locked room writers, which still hasn’t been exhausted to this day. And have come across several stories that use very different variations on the same trick to manipulate a door locked from the inside with a drop bolt.

    So outright stealing among genuine and knowledgeable mystery writers isn’t really a problem, because they’re usually aware what has been done before and know where to find a new twist or ripple. But, from what I have seen, it becomes a problem with writers who want to write detective stories, but lack the ideas/skills to do so. You have a Stephan A. Arleaux who copy-pastes public domain work and sold it with his own name on the cover or a Don Basil, who did the same in the 1930s with then recently published The Back Bay Murders by Roger Scarlett, which he retitled Cat and Feather and cheekily dedicated it to his nephew – who may not even have existed at all! But more common today is lifting components, like locked room-tricks, because most (Western) writers today have forgotten how to put them together. So they pick a locked room-trick from an old story and write a new story around, which is how you get those episodes from Death in Paradise you mentioned. Renwick was more guilty of this than you might realize, but he was better at transforming those ideas into something more of his own. Although he was tiptoeing the line with The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb.

    Yeah, a murky area and you can only properly judge them on a case-by-case basis.

    Liked by 1 person

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