Julie Lee, a secretary with a defense contractor in Rosslyn, cruised by a Crown Books store recently and picked up the bestseller "McNally's Dilemma" by Lawrence Sanders.
At least, she thought it was by Sanders. It said so on the cover.
But when Lee, a serious Sanders fan, started reading the novel, something was not quite jake. Archy McNally, the private-eye protagonist, was more chatty than in the other McNally books--including "McNally's Luck," "McNally's Puzzle" and "McNally's Secret"--she had read. And the humor was just too damn ham-fisted.
That's when Lee leafed back to the front of the book and read the fine print on the copyright page:
"The publisher and the estate of Lawrence Sanders have chosen Vincent Lardo to create this novel based on Lawrence Sanders's beloved character Archy McNally and his fictional world."
Sanders died in February 1998.
When Lee discovered the deception, she was peeved. "That really torqued my jaws," she says. "I was surprised. I didn't realize that he had died. And I was surprised that they were able to present it that way."
What Putnam has done is not unprecedented. The dead-author industry is alive and well. Books "by Louis L'Amour" continue to pop up every year or so, though the prolific western writer died in 1988. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard died in 1986, but folks still crank out science fiction and spy novels under Hubbard's name. Several were published in 1998. Andrew Neiderman, a Palm Springs, Calif., author, continues to scribble scribble scribble for Pocket Books as V.C. Andrews, though the real Virginia Andrews died in 1986. A new Andrews series, "The Wildflowers," debuted in July.
"It's kind of a sticky issue around here," says one Pocket Books spokesman.
One could argue that death has been very, very good to some writers.
Obviously, some publishers believe that a brand-name writer, such as Lawrence Sanders, on the book's cover will sell more books than a writer who is virtually unknown, such as Vincent Lardo. For years, books by Lawrence Sanders have immediately jetted onto bestseller lists. "McNally's Dilemma" was No. 10 on Sunday's Washington Post hardcover fiction bestseller list and No. 12 on the New York Times list.
The book's cover and dust jacket read as if the novel were written by Sanders. The back of the jacket lists four blurbs of praise for Sanders. In the Penguin Putnam online catalogue, the book is listed along with other Sanders works. The page devoted to the novel gives no indication that the book was written, um, created by Vincent Lardo.
"The Hampton Affair" by Vincent Lardo is also listed in the current Putnam catalogue. Efforts to reach Lardo through the publisher were unsuccessful.
"It was Larry's estate's wish to continue publishing the McNally books," says Putnam spokeswoman Marilyn Ducksworth. Because Lardo is a writer in his own right, Ducksworth adds, "we thought it was appropriate to keep the two separate. We did clearly state that the book was written by Vincent Lardo."
Not clearly enough for some folks. The reviewer in Publishers Weekly didn't seem to have a clue. "The murder mystery as comedy of manners may seem an old-fashioned genre in today's graphically violent mystery world," reads the unsigned critique of "McNally's Dilemma," "but Sanders makes it as fresh as tomorrow." The Post and New York Times lists state, without comment, that Lawrence Sanders is the author of "McNally's Dilemma."
Writing under other names is a practice as old as the pen. George Eliot, O. Henry and Dr. Seuss are pseudonyms. H.P. Lovecraft wrote under more than a dozen other names besides his own. But usually the author is alive. The act of foisting upon readers a novel that could not have been written by Lawrence Sanders as a work by him seems particularly questionable and sooo late-20th-century, along the lines of silicone implants and digitally enhanced photographs.
But "why should a little thing like death put an end to my writing?" Isaac Asimov wrote in a letter two years before he died. Various collections and anthologies bearing his name continue to appear. Mostly they are stories and essays by Asimov. But Asimov's "Chronology of Science and Discovery" is advertised as "updated through 1993"--though Asimov died in 1992.
Where does it all end, this business of dead writers writing? The possibilities are mind-boggling. If Lawrence Sanders and V.C. Andrews can write posthumously, why not Flannery O'Connor, T.S. Eliot and Dante Alighieri?
Books written under the names of dead people are only one aspect of a vast and lucrative necro-publishing industry. Other books have been created from notes and jottings left behind. Since the suicide of Ernest Hemingway in 1961, a number of his works have been pieced together into books, including this year's fictional memoir "True at First Light." And "Juneteenth," a novel by Ralph Ellison, who died five years ago, was crafted by his literary executor from a 2,000-page manuscript.
Estates of late writers have handled the benefits of death in various ways. The family of Ian Fleming, for instance, selected John Gardner to carry on the James Bond tradition. Robert B. Parker was asked to finish "Poodle Springs," a novel by Raymond Chandler. In these cases and other similar ones, the readers were not snookered, because the names of the real authors were also on the covers.
However, with "McNally's Dilemma," some, like Julie Lee, have felt hornswoggled. A teacher from Americus, Ga., submitted these thoughts to the review section of Amazon.com: "I am mad that the publisher tried to trick the public by putting Sanders' name on the jacket. There is NO WAY this is the real thing. If my students tried to pass their work off as someone else's, I would give them an F for plagiarism! For those responsible for this faux McNally, I give them an F, too!"
Other armchair critics give Vincent Lardo high marks. A New Yorker wrote: "Mr. Lardo captures Sanders' voice and wit superbly."
Even Lee softened to Lardo while reading "McNally's Dilemma." "It's not a bad book," she admits. "But he's too cute by half. This guy's trying so hard."