Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about how another author and I had our books published the same year, and both stories were eerily similar, with identical details right down to the crucifixion of the victims. Some readers told me I should sue because obviously she stole my idea. Or was I the one who stole hers? I pointed out that it would be physically impossible for either one of us to have stolen the others’ story, because we were writing simultaneously, and these things happen. Stories bear striking similarities that can only be explained as coincidence.
So now there’s a reader review of SILENT GIRL on Amazon accusing me of ripping off GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, and he says that Stieg Larsson’s estate should sue me. He says it’s exactly the same story. I’ve just seen the movie, so I’ll start off exploring this issue with plot summaries.
GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is about a sexually traumatized computer hacker who teams up with a disgraced journalist to solve the mystery of a missing girl. There’s also a lot about Swedish business corruption, Nazis, and men’s abuse of women in Swedish society.
THE SILENT GIRL is about a series of murders in Boston’s Chinatown that may be linked to a decades-old massacre in a Chinese restaurant. Rizzoli and Isles investigate. There’s stuff about a female Chinese martial arts master, the ancient legend of the Monkey King, and the Asian immigrant experience.
So far, these stories are really close, right? Except for their plots and characters.
Where, then, are the similarities between these books? They’re definitely there — in the form of mystery tropes that have been used by just about every mystery writer who’s ever lived. They’re part of every writer’s plot toolbox, and I’ve been using them for years. (Maybe I should be sued for copying from my own books). There are spoilers below, so I apologize in advance if I give away clues to books of mine that you haven’t yet read.
Literary tropes in mysteries:
Dead or missing female victim(s)
Yep, both DRAGON TATTOO and SILENT GIRL have them. Dead girls. The mystery genre loves dead girls. TV loves them too, especially if they’ve been sexually abused (anyone watch Law & Order SVU?) I’ve used this trope repeatedly in THE SURGEON (2001), THE APPRENTICE (2002), VANISH (2005), and THE KEEPSAKE (2008). I was writing about dead girls long before DRAGON TATTOO. And like DRAGON TATTOO, my victims were sometimes confined in basements (THE SURGEON.)
Killers who work as a team or as a family
I’ve used it already in THE APPRENTICE (2001) and THE KEEPSAKE (2008). And yep, I even had a book where the killers are part of the same family, in BODY DOUBLE (2004.) I also dealt with the theme of multi-generational evil in THE MEPHISTO CLUB (2006).
The “dead” character who turns out to be alive.
I love this trope. In fact, I used it in my very first romantic suspense novel, CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT (1987). I used it again in HARVEST (1996), THE MEPHISTO CLUB (2006), and THE KEEPSAKE (2008).
These are literary tropes because they are endlessly useful plot devices that writers have used since the beginning of storytelling. Throughout my writing career, I’ve fallen back on them to inject surprise, suspense, or that one last plot twist. Tropes are not copyrighted. They do not belong to Stieg Larsson. In fact, I’m willing to bet that Stieg Larsson borrowed them from someone else. (Hey Jo Nesbo, did Stieg take something of yours?)
DRAGON TATTOO has become stratospherically popular. Even readers who hardly ever read novels have picked this one up, or watched the movie, and they think this must be the first serial killer story ever written that has a duo of killers. They think that no one else has ever before written about survivors of sexual trauma (I did in THE SURGEON) or abusive fathers (I did in THE SINNER) or kick-ass heroines (um… Jane Rizzoli?) They think this because they haven’t been reading deeply in the genre. They think that anyone else who uses these tropes must be a plagiarist, because of course, Stieg Larsson invented them.
No, he didn’t. Neither did I.