When you’ve been in the newspaper business a while, you tend to think you’ve heard the whole menu of deceit served up by people who pretend to be other than who they really are.
Unscrupulous politicians and greedy financial geniuses are the most commonly recognized professionals in the deception game. Because they’re sharper than most, and do their homework well, they tend to get away with a lot. Then there are the amateurs who, because of their ignorance and woeful lack of savvy, have no chance of ever making the big leagues. Some are so bad at it that you have to wonder if they even realize that deception is wrong.
Well, folks, I got tangled up with one of the amateurs a while ago. And while I might get a chuckle out of it one day — it’s so ridiculous it’s funny — I’m not real happy at the moment. That might have something to do with the letters and phone calls I’ve been getting from a very persistent lawyer in Detroit.
But I’m ahead of myself, so let me back up to the beginning.
About nine months ago, a book of stories arrived in the mail from a young man who said he hoped to break into the mystery-writing field. His letter asked for some ink about this first collection, which he called “Downeast Detectives, Tales of Mystery, Mayhem & Murder in Maine.” It sounded interesting, so I gave the lead story a quick read. It was called “Fastburn in River City,” and it was good — tight plot, clipped, tough-guy style reminiscent of Raymond Chandler, and enough local placenames to arouse any Mainer’s curiosity.
The story was about a hard-boiled Bangor detective named Hank Walker. One day a retired mill worker stops in to see Walker and drops dead in the office. The tale unfolds as Walker snoops around Old Town and Bangor trying to learn the dead man’s identity. While passing the Bangor Auditorium, Walker makes a gun out of his index finger and breezily snaps off a shot at the Paul Bunyan statue. I thought that was a nice literary touch, especially for a fledgling.
So I called the writer, a 25-year-old who went by the pen name Mark Maxwell Dalton. He was the quiet type, and seemed friendly enough. He told me that he’d gone to school in Lichtfield, studied broadcasting in Bangor, and once published a small community magazine in Florida. He said he was living in Augusta at the time and worked in a hotel in Boothbay Harbor. He had started his own desktop business, “Scene of the Crime Press” in Portland, to publish his stories.
To generate interest in the book, Dalton included an unfinished tale called “Murder on Casco Bay” and invited readers to send in their own solutions to the crime. The winning entry would get $1,000, he said.
Since I’m a sucker for struggling young writers, I banged out a piece on the book. The Associated Press picked up the story and shipped it over the wires, where it got pretty good play. I had forgotten about Dalton until a couple of months ago, when I got a call from the lawyer in Detroit who had his own mystery to solve. He said he wanted me to help him track down a culprit who went by the name Mark Maxwell Dalton.
It seems that the laywer’s client, an established Detroit mystery writer named Loren D. Estleman, had published a detective story called “Fastburn” in the May, 1983 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery magazine. According to the lawyer, not only had Dalton ripped off Estleman’s story nearly word for word, he’d used a nearly exact redrawing of the illustration — right down to the dent in the detective’s fedora.
I couldn’t have been more stunned if I’d been clipped in the noggin with the butt of a .38. How could someone plagiarize so blatantly and actually expect to get away with it? And to think that Dalton had even posed with a big smile for the newspaper picture that thousands would see! What was the guy thinking? I told the lawyer I’d try to come up with Dalton’s real name, which I had long forgotten, and asked if he would send a copy of the Estleman story for comparison. When it arrived, I read the two stories side by side and couldn’t believe my eyes.
Estleman: “At that moment I was up to my wrists in typewriter ribbon, changing spools on the venerable Underwood portable that came with the office…”
Dalton: “At that moment I was up to my wrists in typewriter ribbon, changing spools on the venerable Smith-Corona portable that came with the office…”
Estleman: “If the driver’s license in his dilapidated wallet was valid, his name was Emmett Gooding and he lived — had lived — on Mt. Elliott near the cemetery.”
Dalton: “If the driver’s license in his dilapidated wallet was valid, his name was Emmett Graham and he lived — had lived — on Mt. Hope near the cemetery.”
Estleman: “I knew him as Sergeant Blake, having seen him around Detroit police headquarters…”
Dalton: “I knew him as Sergeant Brooks, having seen him around Bangor police headquarters…”
OK, dear reader, were you clever enough to spot the changes? I thought so. Dalton’s text was peppered with such unconvincing jiggery: a street name here, a proper name there, a Ford plant in Dearborn transformed into a paper mill in Old Town, the Spirit of Detroit statue turned into Paul Bunyan. Not exactly a master of disguise, huh?
By the way, Mark Maxwell Dalton’s real name is Tracy McDonald. He wasn’t in when I called. When another reporter reached him in Boothbay, he denied everything and said he couldn’t comment further. I guess I can’t blame him. What’s there to say when you’ve been caught red-handed?
Frankly, the whole thing is one big mystery to me.