There are rich pickings still to be had in the jungle of literature, where dead authors half-buried in brambles continue to yield abundant fruit. Hardly had the sequel to Gone with the Wind been published than the news came that Galsworthy's Forsyte family was being given an extended life-span which would take the characters into the television age, for which they were clearly designed Already any number of hands, licensed and otherwise, have helped to further the adventures of James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Jeeves, Billy Bunter and Charles Pooter; not forgetting, from an earlier age, Flashman and Rochester's mad wife. In a class of their own come the surrogate writers who are authorised to enrich the leftovers of a dead storyteller. The late, prolific Alistair MacLean ('Ach, any idiot can write a book') did not bequeath a hero who became a household name, but he left a clutch of story lines which, for one reason or another, he did not wish to flesh out himself. Four of his plots have now been worked up by the near-homophonous Alistair MacNeill; two of his screenplays had already been turned into novels by John Denis; and a third screenplay is undergoing similar treatment by Simon Gandolfi. In this curious world there are occasional legal hiccups. One such, not so much a hiccup as a cardiac arrest, recently befell HarperCollins when they were prosecuted and heavily fined at the insistence of Warwickshire trading standards officers. The complaint was that readers of books based on MacLean outlines were being misled by the layout of the jackets into believing that these were the works of the master himself, since his name appeared in the traditional bold condensed type above the title, with that of the real writer in less assertive type below. Now, in the latest of the MacNeill series, Time of the Assassins, the two writers have their names in type of equal height, but MacLean still enjoys star billing above the title and MacNeill's name is preceded by 'Written by'. No doubt the implications of this case will be borne in mind by anyone who aspires to supply yet another ending for Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
LRB 19 December 1991 | PDF Download