Murder She Rewrote? Author accused of plagiarising Agatha Christie short story

THE EDITORS of the Australian version of The Big Issue were delighted when Jessica Adams, a prominent "chick-lit" author, agreed to contribute a short story to a special new year edition devoted to new fiction.

A thrilling tale of murder and the supernatural, entitled "The Circle", was duly supplied by Adams, whose novels, including Single White E-mail, have been bestsellers in Britain. But for some readers of The Big Issue, the magazine for the homeless, her colourful prose rang a familiar bell.

A Brisbane playwright, Janelle Evans, went straight to her collection of Agatha Christie murder mysteries, and flicked through the pages of "The Idol House of Astarte", a short story by the celebrated author published in 1928. She found that the structure, plot, characters and crime scene were uncannily similar to those in Adams' story.

The allegations of plagiarism were splashed across the front of The Australian newspaper yesterday under the headline "Murder, She Rewrote", while Evans recounted her revelation in a lengthy inside feature. Excerpts from the two stories were run side by side, pointing to distinct resemblances between the words of the crime writer and the modern-day author.

Adams, who has sold more than 400,000 books worldwide, including Girls' Night In and Tom, Dick and Debbie Harry, denied the charge of plagiarism. "I'm a great fan of Agatha Christie, but she's not a source of inspiration," she told Evans, adding that her favourite murder writer was Ruth Rendell.

The Big Issue's commissioning editor, Mic Looby, said numerous readers had written in to say that her story reminded them of Christie's. The magazine contacted Adams, 40, who said "she didn't know what it was about and that she wrote the story herself".

Evans read the magazine on a bus and was struck by deja vu - or, more precisely, deja lu. "I knew immediately I had read something very similar," she said. She found the Christie version - which features the first appearance by the amateur detective Miss Marple - in a collection of short stories entitled The Thirteen Problems.

"I read the stories ... side by side, and I was staggered," she told The Australian. "It could be a coincidence. It may be possible she read the story some time ago and inadvertently used it."

According to Evans, both stories involve murders at a remote property, in a circle of trees where ancient rituals once took place. In both, the victim is the property owner, the suspect is a beautiful woman and the murder weapon is missing. Both involve supernatural intervention, and a jealous relative unmasked as the murderer after faking a similar attack.

The Big Issue solicited work from a range of high-profile Australian authors as well as Alexei Sayle, the British writer and television personality. All agreed to write for it for free.

A week before deadline, according to the magazine, Adams - who lives in northern New South Wales and also writes an astrology column for Australian Vogue magazine and several newspapers - told them she had forgotten about the project. Three days later she supplied a story.

Debra Adelaide, an Australian novelist and a lecturer in writing at the University of Technology in Sydney, told The Australian that "based on the evidence provided by the extracts I was given, this is a clear case of plagiarism".

The Big Issue said it had published the story as an original work in good faith, and was "very concerned and disappointed by the allegations".

HOW THE TALES COMPARE

Jessica Adams: "Eric had been stabbed through the heart, but there was no knife, nothing."

Agatha Christie: "Dick didn't die of shock, he was stabbed - stabbed to the heart, and there is no weapon."

Adams: "Michael stabbed himself a few hours afterwards - just a minor wound - to take suspicion away from himself."

Christie: "He stabbed himself later in order to divert suspicion."

Adams: "One or all of you were hypnotised into seeing - or not seeing - whatever the murderer wanted you to see."

Christie: "I suppose one can explain it by some kind of hypnotism."

Adams: "There were these giant standing stones, all in a circle - with just one or two missing. A kind of native Stonehenge, stuck out in the middle of nowhere."

Christie: "On the slopes of the Tor nearest to us were various hut circles, relics of the bygone days of the late Stone Age."

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