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Struggling Writers Steal Someone Else's Work In 2 New Suspense Novels


This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says that, by trade, writers are paranoid people. They spend too much time in their own heads, many of them worried about whether the work of other writers garners more sales and recognition. Here's Maureen's review of two new literary suspense tales that amp up the anxiety.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: This spring, a wave of suspense stories is breaking whose plots center on struggling writers stealing someone else's work. But these novels are more socially aware than the traditional who-wrote-it tales of literary paranoia. In many of these stories, power imbalances rooted in gender or class tempt malefactors into thinking they're justified in stealing someone else's voice and story. Two of the best have just been published in time for early summer reading.

"A Lonely Man" is a brooding literary thriller by Chris Power that explores human betrayal in all its infinite variety. And it's also reminiscent of the Graham Greene classic, "The Third Man." The story opens one evening in a Berlin bookstore. Two men, both British, both writers, are browsing and reach for the same book. Robert is a married father of two. Some years ago, he published a respectfully reviewed short story collection. And ever since, he's been trying to write his first novel - accent on the word trying.

The other man, Patrick, is a ghostwriter whose last client was a Russian oligarch who'd hired Patrick to write his memoirs, filled with information damaging to Vladimir Putin. That writing project came to a halt the morning the oligarch went out for a run and was subsequently discovered hanging from an oak tree. The death was ruled a suicide, but Patrick insists it was murder.

Robert and Patrick begin meeting for drinks, and as Patrick unbends, he tells Robert he's being followed, probably by the same pro-Putin thugs who murdered his former employer. As Robert listens, he feels tempted to steal a story that would otherwise go to waste. Robert begins manipulating Patrick into sharing detailed accounts of his interviews with the doomed oligarch. It's all going so well, until Robert is grimly reminded that in laying claim to Patrick's material, he, too, has turned into a writer who knows too much.

Jean Hanff Korelitz is the novelist who gave us the 2014 domestic thriller "You Should Have Known," which was made into the recent HBO series "The Undoing," in which the online buzz over Nicole Kidman's gorgeous coats threatened to distract attention from the diabolical narrative. Korelitz's new novel is called "The Plot," and it's an ingenious, witty nightmare of a thriller about the dangerous consequences of sticky fingers in the literary world. The protagonist of the plot is Jacob Finch Bonner, a once-celebrated young author who, by his own admission, fumbled his early shot, failed to produce a good enough second novel or any trace of a third novel, and had been sent to the special purgatory for formerly promising writers. That special purgatory is a low residency masters of fine arts program at the fictional Ripley College in Vermont, where, for the past few summers, Jacob has taught a prose fiction workshop.

To say that Jacob has become cynical about teaching would be like saying that Ulysses takes a long time to get home. When the story opens, Jacob has just arrived at his temporary office on campus without having read his new students' writing samples because, after all, thinks Jacob, what was there to know? These particular students, these ardent apprentices, would be utterly indistinguishable from their earlier Ripley counterparts - mid-career professionals convinced they could churn out Clive Cussler adventures or moms who blogged about their kids and didn't see why that shouldn't entitle them to a regular gig on "Good Morning America" or newly retired people returning to fiction, secure in the knowledge that fiction had been waiting for them.

But as fate would have it, there is one special student in the summer seminar, an arrogant toad named Evan Parker who refuses to share his work with the class but does break down and share his spectacular plot idea with Jacob. Years later, when Jacob has slid even farther down the literary food chain and is working as a freelance writing coach, he becomes curious about whatever happened to Parker and his great idea for a novel. To his shock, Jacob discovers Parker's obituary online. There's no novel because Parker didn't live to write it. But Jacob is alive, and it would be a crime to let that spectacular story vanish into the ether, wouldn't it?

I'll stop there, because one thing that surely would be a crime would be to divulge any more of the malevolent twists and turns of "The Plot." The plot of "The Plot" is so inspired that it should be assigned as required reading in the very MFA programs it satirizes, both as a model of narrative construction and as a warning to wannabe (ph) writers that purloined letters are an ever-present danger of the literary life.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "A Lonely Man" by Chris Power and "The Plot" by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the sharp racial distinctions in the way Americans' Second Amendment right to bear arms has been applied. Our guest will be Carol Anderson, author of the new book "The Second: Race And Guns In A Fatally Unequal America." She says the Second Amendment was crafted to ensure slave owners could suppress rebellions, and Black people have often been denied the right to use guns in self-defense with tragic consequences. I hope you'll join us.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.