“You stole my story!”, Part 2

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.

11 replies
  1. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    That’s a bigger stretch than your first post about this topic – that’s for sure. I’m sure of one thing, if the GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO does super well, you can bet there will be a lot closer similarities than the ones claimed by that review – both literary and movie plots will be imitating it to the point of cloning. 🙂

  2. april
    april says:

    I’ve read legitimate books where they were so eerily similar, I still get them confused.

    I’ve read your books as well as Stieg Larsson’s trilogy and never once connected them in any shape or form.

    I think readers like that give other readers a bad name or don’t read as much as they think to be knowledgeable to leave reader comments anywhere. They think they’re smart because they read a couple of books this year but clearly are not well versed in the genre or, say, any other popular fiction author.

  3. PackingPadre
    PackingPadre says:

    Tess,

    Don’t let the bastards get you down. You keep writing the Rizzoli and Isles books and I’ll keep buying them. If I am sufficiently flush next month, I will buy some Maura and Jane coffee mugs. After my move to Indianapolis, I find I am short of coffee mugs. Of course, drinking my morning coffee out of a Maura or a Jane mug to me is cool.

    Daniel

  4. mochamaker
    mochamaker says:

    *sarcastic snort* I absolutely see the similarities. Not! That’s like saying Ted Bundy copied Jack the Ripper just because they both murdered women. I think you handled this situation with diplomacy and professionalism, and I applaud your rebuttal.

  5. Fullerton looper
    Fullerton looper says:

    This explanation should not have been necessary. I think that any serious reader understands coincidences. Coincidentally, I happened to read Dragon Tattoo and The Silent Girl within weeks of each other last month. I could not help but notice that, even though the characters and most of the plots were completely different, there were some striking similarities. But it was clear to me and it should be clear to any serious reader that Ms. Gerritsen did not “borrow” from Mr. Larsson. But I do appreciate this explanation and I hope that the unenlightened accuser from Amazon reads it, too.

  6. mrloach
    mrloach says:

    I agree with your other fans, “forget about it”. It happens with romance stories/movies, too. The fact is that are only so many variations in telling stories. As long as there are different times, different places, etc. the stories will be similar – but still different – and worth reading. I come from a line of mystery readers and I’m fussy about my mystery stories (tried several – most I don’t continue; I’ve read all of yours and will continue to). You’re the best! And, yes, I’m a fan of the show “Rizzoli and Isles, too.

  7. MickyB
    MickyB says:

    Unfortunately people are allowed to post whatever they want on the internet. There are lots of people out there that are so full of bile they just feel they have to spill it everywhere for everyone to read.

    We all have our own opinions, but no-one has the right to slander someone else and accuse them of theft without sufficient proof.

    I’m VERY fussy about what I read and I stick to authors that I know, so I haven’t read DRAGON TATTOO yet and have no idea how similar this book is to SILENT GIRL. But if they were so alike as this person claims then why hasn’t the author of DRAGON TATTOO or his agent instituted a lawsuite (it’s been 7 months since SILENT GIRL was released)?

    I agree that there are popular story lines and plots such as alien invasions, serial murders, monsterous human creations, conspiracy theories and authors will always WRITE about them, because that is what people like to READ.

    In my opinion people should think before they speak and do a research before vomiting their ideas to the world on the internet.

  8. nunciatta3
    nunciatta3 says:

    I tried to read Girl With Dragon Tattoo after my daughter told me it was a good, but VERY disturbing and gruesome, movie. I thought book would be good; could not get into it, and stopped reading after a few chapters. Not interesting and could not pronounce Swedish names. Boring and then sickening and not believable. However, I have just read every one of your books, having discovered one by accident. I cannot put them down; I pass them to my mom and sis. I cannot wait for your next one; I feel panic since I think I have read them all. I did not read them in order; that was ok. I love the way you continue stories, such as Daniel and Maura’s affair; Jane’s being pg and then having the baby. Even backwards I can follow them perfectly. One thing; Jane does not spend enough time thinking of or being with her baby. No mom would be that into her job; she hardly mentions baby. Never saw or want to see the TV show; only like original Law and Order with Jerry Orbach. Nothing can compare with that show on TV, not even the new ones since he died. You are incredibly intelligent with respect to the human body and all its intricicacies. You are a tremendous writer, too; I am sad that I just finished my last book by you, Bloodstream. I loved it. I have missed much sleep this past month since I started reading your books, and gone to work tired. Keep on writing!! Do not worry about what anyone says; wish that guy never handed in his manuscripts just before he died.

  9. sim_one
    sim_one says:

    For my second book i used the trope: girl tied up in the basement.(inspiration: the surgeon) that’s not making me a plagiarist right? i mean, there are a lot writers who use that trope.. i can’t pick any now but i’m pretty sure there is. i think writers are each others source of inspiration and sometimes they use things from another.i think it’s only plagiate if the writer is copying the characters, storyline, locations of the story. or having a cover that looks like yours.. so i would say to the complainants: shut up.

  10. Liesje
    Liesje says:

    I only read the Millenium (Dragon Tattoo) series after I’d caught up on all Tess Gerritsen’s books, so I actually read them this past winter, after Silent Girl. I did enjoy the Millenium series but I came to this web site tonight eager to find out if Ms. Gerritsen is working on any more books. I’m all caught up and most of the other books I read are just to keep me occupied while I wait for more Tess Gerritsen. Honestly I never once thought of any similarities between the Millenium series and Tess Gerritsen’s books other than both being the sort of genre I like to read. I never thought about the comparisons until I read this very blog post so I don’t think Ms. Gerritsen has much to worry about. Unless someone takes up ghost writing, the Millenium series is over but I’m eagerly awaiting the next Isles and Rizzoli…

  11. Jiheishou Daigakusha
    Jiheishou Daigakusha says:

    Let’s say you did borrow something, a what if scenario. I still don’t see the problem. For example: I’m posting my Oblivion fanfic on the web (under licence from Bethesda Softworks), and in my story, my character is transported from England to Cyrodiil, transformed, has adventures, then gets bak home and thinks everything was a dream before looking in the mirror and discovering evidence that his travails were real. Yes, I did rather nick the basic plotline of Labyrinth, but I don’t anticipate a lawsuit from that corner because plotlines can’t be copyrighted or trademarked.

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