Wednesday, January 24, 2007

E. Howard Hunt and Raymond Chandler

Steve Lewis, Bill Crider and J. Kingston Pierce at the Rap Sheet have pointed out that recently deceased Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt was also a spy novelist.

What may be less generally known is that Hunt and Raymond Chandler once corresponded. In 1952, Chandler wrote a two page letter in response to--of all things--charges from Hunt of ethical violations of "self-plagiarism." Hunt had written to complain that several of Chandler's 1930s Black Mask short stories, anthologized in the 1952 collection The Simple Art of Murder, had been the cannibalized to provide the plot lines for his first four novels.

Here is the full text of Chandler's response, which I have copied (plagiarized) from Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, edited by Frank MacShane:

Dear Mr. Hunt:

Your letter to the editors of Pocket Books, accusing me of self-plagiarism, was sent on to me by them without comment. Since the letter was not addressed to me, there is no real reason why I should answer it, but I will take up a couple of points. First, as to The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, you were perfectly right. As a matter of fact I suggested the idea of this anthology to Joe Shaw, a former editor of the Black Mask and a long-time friend of mine, and I signed a permission to him for this story when I was very busy at Paramount and not paying any particular attention to it. That is to say, I relied on his good faith. Later I read the story and immediately raised a howl and secured his undertaking in writing not to use it but to substitute something else which had not been, as I term it, "cannibalized." When the book came out he explained somewhat lamely that the editors of Simon & Schuster had overruled him. Legally of course I had no remedy, although I spent several hundred dollars in lawyers fees trying to find one. I had signed the permission. The most I achieved was to prevent the inclusion of this story in the English edition of that anthology.

You should not blame the editors of Pocket Books, because the volume of their business is so great that they naturally take these things on trust from the publishers from whom as a rule they secure the reprint rights. I consider that my confidence was abused, but that is just my personal opinion.

As to your broader charge of self-plagiarism, based on the use by me of scenes, characters, incidents, background, color, etc., from old Black Mask novelettes: first of all, let me say that I have a perfect right to use them; I am the copyright owner, I can use my material in any way I see fit. There have been many instances of short stories being expanded into books which were published, and then being dramatized into plays which were published, and so on. Where the novel takes over the essential plot and story line of the briefer story, I would say that the reader should be put upon notice of this, particularly if the title is changed. Where the material used is merely character and incident, there is no fraud on the public because the thing is re-created in another form. Even if occasional lines of dialogue are used, there is no fraud. There is no moral or ethical issue involved. You may dislike the procedure, but that's as far as you can go.

There is another consideration which may have escaped your attention. That is that these old stories of mine were written for the most ephemeral possible kind of publication, one which had a life of thirty days and then was as dead as Caesar. At the time it would have never occurred to me that any of these stories would ever be resurrected, remembered, republished again in any form. I am not sure that they ever should have been republished in their original form, but I took a wide selection of opinions on the subject before I consented. It was brought home to me that a whole generation had grown up that had never known the Black Mask, and that that generation might just possibly want to read these stories, and certainly would not be able to read them unless they were republished. There might happen to be a few odd copies of the magazine obtainable in some secondhand magazine store, but who would be likely to look for them except a fanatic. I was even assured by a somewhat austere critic of this type of fiction, James Sandoe by name, that even people who knew the stories and had perhaps kept them in some other form would still be very likely to want them in hard covers.

I have a further remark. As you may know, writers like Dashiell Hammett and myself have been widely and ruthlessly imitated, so closely as to amount to a moral plagiarism, even though the law does not recognize anything but the substantial taking of a plot. I have had stories taken scene by scene and just lightly changed here and there. I have had lines of dialogue taken intact, bits of description also word for word. I have no recourse. The law doesn't call it plagiarism. Against this background you must pardon me if I find it just a little ludicrous that you should object to my using what is mine in the way that seems to me most suitable and most convenient. If my early stories had been published in a magazine of prestige and significance, the situation would have been rather different, and I would have been much more reluctant to do what you complain of. But as it is, I wish I had carried the process much further and used more of my old novelettes as material instead of republishing them with all their crudities, some of which crudities I know find almost unbearable.

I think my principal reason for writing this letter is that in all these years you are the only person who has ever raised this objection, that is to say, the only person other than myself. I have a file of pretty bitter correspondence on the subject of the first paragraph of your letter.

Yours very truly,


At 7:17 AM, Anonymous Ed said...

What's so surprising is how seriously Chandler took Hunt's letter. He defends himself on legal, moral and aesthetic grounds. Did Chandler see Hunt as just a reader or was Hunt in some position of authority at the time?

At 8:46 AM, Blogger Mark Coggins said...

Good question. Hunt apparently sent the letter from the American embassy in Mexico, so it did carry some weight.

But I think Chandler also gives an explanation in his letter: he himself was worried about the issue.


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