Friday 18 November 2011

The Miernik Dossier by Charles McCarry (British First Edition, Hutchinson, 1974) and the Q. R. Markham Assassin of Secrets Plagiarism Controversy

Continuing this run of posts on various spy fiction series, here's a novel by an American author who, for reasons I suspect he's none too chuffed about, has been all over the news of late:

Charles McCarry's The Miernik Dossier was first published in hardback in Great Britain by Hutchinson in 1974, a year after the US Saturday Review Press/E. P. Dutton first edition. McCarry's debut novel following Citizen Nader, his 1972 biography of political activist Ralph Nader, it's also the first in what would become a ten-book series featuring CIA agent Paul Christopher (McCarry was a CIA operative himself before turning to writing), members of Christopher's family, and his ancestors.

Now, until very recently I'd never heard of Charles McCarry – I've only really become interested in spy fiction in the last couple of years and have a lot of catching up to do – but the author popped up on my radar as a result of the controversy surrounding Q. R. Markham's Assassin of Secrets, whereby Markham – or, to grant him his proper moniker, Quentin Rowan; given his transgressions he doesn't deserve Kingsley Amis's pseudonymous surname – lifted almost verbatim great chunks of other writers' spy novels and constructed his own piece of espionage fiction out of them. The story has been making headlines in newspapers and magazines over the past week or so, but it was via spy novelist (and friend of Existential Ennui) Jeremy Duns's blog that I learned of it, as Jeremy had written a blurb for Assassin of Secrets before realising what Rowan had done. (Rowan has since explained his actions to Jeremy.)

Inveterate collector that I am, I have to admit I did toy with purchasing a copy of Rowan's pilfered concoction, the recalled-by-the-publisher paperback edition of which is currently fetching silly money on eBay. In the end, though, I decided that to do so would represent an affront to the authors Rowan had ripped off – not that they'll care a fig what I think, mind you, but it's the principle of the thing – and determined instead to investigate some of the original works Rowan had filched from. I was already aware of the post-Fleming Bond novels by John Gardner and Raymond Benson that Rowan had lifted passages from, and of course of Robert Ludlum's novels, from which he'd also stolen, but there was one author he'd ransacked extensively who I'd not come across before: Charles McCarry.

I don't believe The Miernik Dossier was one of the McCarry novels Rowan plundered, but he did plagiarise a number of later books in the Paul Christopher series, notably the second, third, fourth and seventh ones. However, it's always best to start at the beginning, which is why I plumped for a first edition of The Miernik Dossier. And I must say it's an intriguing piece of fiction. Ironically, given the bolted-together-from-multiple-sources nature of Rowan's book, The Miernik Dossier is something of a patchwork quilt itself. It's written in the form of, variously, reports by Christopher, letters, telephone conversation transcripts, diary entries and so forth, all of which go towards building up a picture of a possible defection by a Polish United Nations employee named Tadeusz Miernik.

It looks fascinating, and I'm glad McCarry came to my attention; in a way, from my – admittedly incidental and trifling – perspective, I guess one could make a case for at least some good coming of the Rowan affair. There's a thorough overview of McCarry's spy novels by P. J. O'Rourke here, and a lengthy interview with McCarry here (link via Sarah Weinman). As to The Miernik Dossier, British firsts of the novel will set you back anything from £20 to £100 (and possibly a bit more for a US first), but if you live in the UK, and you're quick (and lucky), there's a copy currently on eBay with a starting price of £7.00, auction finishing 27 November (tell 'em I sent ya). And if old editions aren't your thing, the novel is readily available from the usual outlets.

Moving on, and next I'll hopefully have that Richard Stark review I keep promising, after which it's on with the spy fiction series...


  1. You know you have to get to Eric Ambler soon, Nick. He's the best of espionage writers (great prose, interwar and cold war intrigue), and he's also a fine comic novelist. 'The Light of Day' became the movie 'Topkapi' with Peter Ustinov; the book is far superior, a total hoot. I also recommend 'A Coffin for Dimitrios'.

  2. I do have a couple of Amblers waiting to be read/blogged about, Matt, The Light of Day being one. So he should crop up on here at some point.