Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Remarkable Case of Plagiarism: Don Basil's Cat and Feather (1931) and Roger Scarlett's The Back Bay Murders (1930)

stalking text
Plagiarism can be subtle or it can be blatant--sometimes jaw-droppingly, eye-poppingly blatant. 

Case in point: Englishman Don Basil's Golden Age detective novel Cat and Feather, published in 1931 and lifted nearly word-for-word from American Roger Scarlett's The Back Bay Murders, published in the US the previous year. (The five Roger Scarlett detective novels, readers of this blog will recall, has recently been reprinted by Coachwhip).


In his January 1978 column ("The Uneasy Chair") in the landmark fanzine The Armchair Detective, edited by Allen J. Hubin, detective fiction collector Ned Guymon, who had corresponded about the matter a few years earlier with both Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, the two women who in the 1930s had written detective novels under the name "Roger Scarlett," called Don Basil’s Cat and Feather “probably the most glaring piece of plagiarism ever to exist.”

Guymon explained that the novel
 did not involve a simple matter of "similarity of character or plot or situation."  Rather, it was a "word for word copy"

The English characters have different names, English locale has been substituted for American and there are a very few English words used to clarify American terms.  Otherwise this book is a flagrant and larcenous case of plagiarism.  You should see it to believe it.

I have seen a copy of Don Basil’s book (which is extremely rare), and, having seen it, I certainly do believe it.  Here are two pairs of matched quotations from the novels that illustrate the breadth and brazenness of Basil’s plagiarism:

the plagiarism was bold and bloodcurdling
I had known Kane for many years, but not until some months ago had I been associated with him in one of his cases.  On that occasion I had been present, as the family lawyer, at a dinner party which had a fatal ending, and had called Kane, my only friend among the police inspectors of Boston, to my assistance and to that of the Sutton family.  His spectacular solution of that case, widely known as the Beacon Hill murders, had put him in the limelight as far as the public was concerned.  (The Back Bay Murders)

I had known Richard Kirk Storm for many years, but not until some months ago had I been associated with him in one of his cases.  On that occasion I had been present, as the family solicitor, at a dinner which had a fatal ending, and had called Storm, my only friend among officials of Scotland Yard, to my assistance and that of the Stafford family.

His spectacular solution of the case widely known as The Bexhill Murder Mystery had put him in the limelight as far as the public was concerned. (Cat and Feather)

oyster stew, with flocks of oysters serious eats
Twenty minutes later Kane was propelling me through the doors of Thompson’s Spa.  “Don’t let a murderer get the best of your appetite, Underwood,” he cautioned me, grinning down at my gloomy face, “whatever else he does to you.  Here’s an empty counter and an idle handmaiden.  Sit down.”  He slapped a stool.  Without a word I climbed up on it and he sat down beside me.  “It’s past eating-time and I know it.  We’ll have oyster stew, with flocks of oysters, and, let’s see—for a climax—“  He debated gravely, and then brought out with gusto, “Pumpkin pie."

I forced a smile.
  The mention of food gave me no pleasure.  “That’s just where you’re wrong,” Kane announced when I explained this to him.  “You know,” he looked at me quizzically, “I’d lay a bet that nine out of ten really good murderers lose their appetites right after shooting.  And a heavy-eating gumshoe gets them on the hip every time. 
So forget your troubles.

He ordered for us both.  When we were served I fished about in my stew with as good grace as I could muster.
  (The Back Bay Murders)


college pudding lost recipes found
Twenty minutes later Storm was leading me through the doors of a restaurant.  “Don’t let a murderer get the best of your appetite, West,” he cautioned me, grinning down at my gloomy face, “whatever else he does to you.  Here’s an empty table and an idle handmaiden.  Sit down.”

Without a word we sat down at the marble table….

“It’s past lunch-time, and I know it.  We’ll have steak and kidney pie, with stacks of chips, and, let’s see—for a climax—“  He debated gravely, and then brought out with gusto, “College pudding.”

I forced a grim smile.  The mention of food brought me no pleasure.

“That’s just where you’re wrong,” Storm announced, when I explained to him.  “You know,” he looked at me quizzically, “I’d lay a bet that nine out of ten really good murderers lose their appetites after the murder.  So forget your troubles.”

He ordered for us both.  When we were served I toyed with my food with as good grace as I could muster. (Cat and Feather)

original drawing by Elena Kolotusha
copies available at Fine Art America
Aside from changes in paragraph structure and in character names (Kane becomes Storm, Underwood West, the Sutton family the Stafford family, the Beacon Hill murders the The Bexhill Murder Mystery), as well as some alterations of Americanisms (police inspectors of Boston becomes officials of Scotland Yard, lawyer solicitor, Thompson’s Spa a restaurant, oyster stew steak and kidney pie, flocks of oysters stacks of chips, pumpkin pie college pudding and fished about in my stew toyed with my food), the text of Cat and Feather is identical to that of The Back Bay Murders all through the book. 

This really is a remarkable--remarkably egregious--case of plagiarism.

Irony is added, as Ned Guymon noted, by the fact that “Don Basil” (if that truly was the author’s name) dedicated “his” novel as follows, “To Basil Holland, who once said, ‘Uncle, please write a detective story for me’.”  To this Ned Guymon witheringly commented: “Basil Holland got his detective story all right but his uncle didn’t write it, he copied it.”

Don Basil's perfidy went undetected in the UK, but in the US, where the novel had been picked up for publication by Henry Holt, Cat and Feather was pulled from circulation and "Don Basil," as far as we know, disappeared from the annals of mystery writing.

So who was the devious Don Basil?  Was the name a pseudonym or truly his?  If anyone knows any more about this subject I would love to hear about it!

10 comments:

  1. Old Don was about as subtle as a street mugger!

    As to your last question, I wonder if Don Basil and Basil Holland might have been one and the same person. And he simply used the dedication to get his actual name, in a round-a-bout way, into the book. After all, isn't Don used as "Mr" or "Sir" in Spanish speaking countries? So we have a "Mr." Basil who "wrote" a book for relative named Basil Holland. Sounds fishy!

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  2. As usual a good post! I think are much more interesting when a real murderer plagiarizas a golden age murde...as in the case of “The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey,” .
    And .. about the sugerence of TomCat.... Don Basil and Basil Holland the same person....maybe but...I'm agree in Don ...is similar to "Mr"....or "Sir"...so it will be Sir Basil...and it could be a joke, for instance of an old man who didn't want his name was knew...and with a relation with Holland or dutch people ...for example Mata Hari....an expert on codecs ( an spy for example) who had written mystery crime novels.....Martin Edwards wrote a prologo of his inspector Richardson mystery...... If Don Basil also was Sir Basil Thomson??? After the plagiarist Cat and feather Sir Basil Thomson began in writting his own novels : eight...in his last four year's life.....Cat and Feather was only a joke...the rest of his novels were real...and very good!!!!Please Martin...investigate this!!! Juan Mari B.

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  3. And the second name of sir Basil was Ho...me...As he signed in his first novels as "Indiscretions of lady Asenath " (1898). Sir Basil Ho..me converted in Don Basil and his dedicatory to Basil Ho..lland. A joke. Perhaps the Cat and Feather could be a Bet ....

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  4. Fascinating story, Curt, and a completely new one to me.

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    1. It is the most blatant case of plagiarism I’ve seen.

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  5. I also took TomCat’s stance in the introduction I did to the Scarlett reprints. But I haven’t found a Basil Holland yet! The idea that this might have been a joke seems belied by the fact that the author and his publishers were taking money for someone else’s work—no joke that! Though the dedication may well be pretty sly!

    That’s a good point about the honorific “don.”

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    1. Have you tried looking for a Basil Flanders? He altered the Americanisms to fit an English setting. So maybe he pulled a similar gag with his name and changed his surname to another, Dutch-language, place in the Low Countries. And if there's anything in Spanish honorific of Don, you might want to be on the lookout for a Basil Flanders who had either traveled a lot or was a linguist.

      He was not good enough to write his own detective story, but knew exactly which cultural aspects and differences in language to alter. The fact that he plagiarized an American detective novel, which was practically unknown in England, also suggests he had traveled abroad.

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  6. I would think it quite likely it is the publisher himself. 'Philip Earle' published a series of books called the 'Holland Library'. In 1933 he was committed to trial for obtaining money by false pretences: From the Western Morning News, MAN AND AUNT COMMITTED Philip Earle described as bookseller and publisher and his aunt, Miss Lucy Griffiths (57), were committed for trial when they were charged remand at Bow Street Police Court, London, yesterday. with conspiring to obtain £3.389 by false pretences from Mrs Kate Christie Miller, an elderly widow. They pleaded not guilty and reserved their defence.
    When the case came to court in January 1934 he was found guilty and sentenced to four years' imprisonment. His real name was Morris Balk. Oddly the Cat and Feather's copyright was renewed in the US in 1958 by the author

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    1. I think you've got it! I think he was the eldest son of a Bexhill photographer, and it seems he was a major transatlantic fraudster! How exciting! Notice how in Cat and Feather "Don Basil" references the "Bexhill Murder Mystery."

      More will be coming soon!

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    2. I think Bexhill is the clincher, Maurice Balk seems to have had a remarkable criminal career Apart from that he directed a film (in 1918) Cheated Vengeance, started a newspaper in Colorado Springs that lasted less than a month. He edited The Journal of Auxiliary Medicine in 1967. He also wrote a Memorandum on Penal Reform, no doubt helped by his numerous stays in prison. He published a booklet on the 1937 Coronation and also wrote and had published religious verse. No doubt there are other things he did of interest before he died in 1981

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