Ed McBain Stole My Joke by Crad Kilodney
As an obscure writer, I should be flattered that a famous writer like Ed McBain would steal a joke from one of my little books. Of course, he would deny it. He’d say it was a coincidence. But I say he stole my joke, and I’m going to present my evidence and let you be the judge.
The joke concerns the difference between the words “hanged” and “hung.” (People are hanged, but objects are hung.) In my story “The Story of A Man With A Broken Toaster,” from my 1984 private edition Bang Heads Here, Suffering Bastards, a class clown named Vinnie is having his essay corrected by a strict teacher named Brother Julio:
“…Wrong word. Hanged, not hung, Vincent.”
“A man gets hanged, not hung.”
“How come? If a guy’s got a big whacker, you say he’s well hung, right?”
“He may be well hung, but he still gets hanged.”
Short and sweet, right? That’s my style. Now read the McBain version, from the novel Lightning, also copyright 1984. Here we have two detectives at a crime scene, where a body has been found hanging from a lamppost:
“Maybe she hung herself,” Monoghan said.
“So then where’s the ladder or whatever?” Monroe said.
“Up here in the Eight-Seven,” Monoghan said, “she coulda hung herself and somebody coulda stole the ladder later.”
“Anyway, it’s hanged,” Monroe said.
“Whattya mean it’s hanged?” Monoghan said.
“A person hangs himself, you say he got hanged. Not hung.”
“Who told you that?”
“It’s common knowledge.”
“That don’t sound right. Hanged.”
“It’s right, though.”
“You see a guy with a big dork,” Monoghan said, “you don’t say he’s well-hanged, you say he’s well-hung.”
“That’s a different thing entirely,” Monroe said. “We’re talking here about a different thing entirely.”
“When you hang up your suit on a hanger, you don’t say I hanged up my suit,” Monoghan said. “You say I hung up my suit.”
“That’s also different,” Monroe said.
“How is it different?”
“It’s different because when you hang somebody then the person has been hanged, he has not been hung.”
The imitation is never as good as the original. In McBain’s hands, the hanged/hung joke gets lost in verbosity. McBain is apparently trying to show how casual these two detectives are about death by having them carry on such a banal conversation at a murder scene. Maybe you buy it, but I don’t. Neither do I buy the suggestion that any homicide detective wouldn’t already know that people are hanged, not hung.
The joke has been re-heated, re-seasoned, rearranged, and served up to the reader like leftovers, but it is still recognizable as my joke.
Lightning is not a very good book, by the way. The characters are unconvincing, and the plot is ridiculous. It was made into a movie starring Yaphet Kotto, which is seen less often than Plan Nine From Outer Space.
How I stumbled upon this book is worth relating. I was walking downstairs in my apartment building, and I found the book on the floor of the lobby. It was as if some little angel put it there for me to find. I recognized the author’s name, picked up the book, and put it away in a carton of other books I intended to read. Many months later I picked it up and started reading it. When I got to page 6, I practically shouted, “This is my joke! He stole my joke!” I checked the copyright date — 1984. I fished out my book and checked the copyright date — also 1984. If my book came out early in the year, there would have been plenty of time for a copy to find its way to him before he delivered his page proofs for a fall publication date. Don’t ask me to prove it with documents. I can’t. But this is the only explanation that works. And don’t think my little books didn’t get around. They did.
Anyway, I want to stress that I wasn’t angry. I recognized it as the sort of delicious tidbit my future biographers would be delighted to discover. However, I did want McBain to admit that he had “borrowed” my joke. So I wrote him a friendly letter in care of his publishers, saying, in effect, come on, fess up, you got that joke from my book, didn’t you? Well, I never got an answer. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.
I’m sure best-selling authors occasionally steal little things from sources that are so obscure, the odds are a million to one that the reader will know. It’s not really plagiarism; it’s more like petty theft.
The prosecution rests its case. You, the jury, are asked to reach a conclusion of fact. Don’t let the possible punishment dissuade you from delivering a guilty verdict. After all, it’s not as though anyone’s going to get hanged.
All material at CradKilodney.net is copyright © by Crad Kilodney. All rights reserved.
Crad Kilodney, P.O. Box 72577, 345 Bloor St. East, Unit 7, Toronto, ON, M4W 3S9
— Crad’s new writing is now at CradKilodney.wordpress.com