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True lies, or true-to-life?


Terrorists spread a deadly poison through a big-city subway system. A crazed pilot crashes his plane into the White House. The IRA blows up a boat carrying an English lord.

Headlines from the newspaper, or plots from paperback novels?

Both. Fact, it turns out, follows fiction.

The attack of the Tokyo subway earlier this week, in which deadly nerve gas coursed through the system during rush hour, killing 10 commuters and injuring nearly 5,000, is just the latest example:

He picked up a bottle. "One way would be to introduce it into an underground transport system, such as the Tube in London or the Metro in Paris. The CIA showed it could be done when they introduced a harmless agent into the air-conditioning system of the New York subway a few years ago. If it had been the real thing, up to a million people could have been infected."

The passage comes from a 1991 novel, "Deadly Perfume," by British author Gordon Thomas. In the book, Islamic terrorists unleash the deadly anthrax bacterium to force world leaders into dismantling the state of Israel, turning over the control of Arab oil fields and, rather preposterously, banning all pornography.

So it's not an exact duplicate of what happened in Tokyo. That hasn't stopped the author from proclaiming "quite significant" similarities between his book and Monday's events, or the book from flying out of bookstores in Japan in the aftermath of the attack.

Attribute it to great -- or at least criminally inclined -- minds thinking alike, or a glaring lack of imagination among terrorists, or even remarkable coincidence: Whatever the reason, a number of real-life events have had fictional antecedents. Intentionally -- as in copycat crimes, for example -- or not.

"I believe things float in the air, and these things turn up in fact and they turn up in fiction," mystery writer Donald E. Westlake said. "It's just that there's a great consciousness that flows through the air."

Mr. Westlake played the theme of fact-vs.-fiction to grand excess himself about 10 years ago in his novel, "Jimmy the Kid."

He had been tickled by a case in which a 1953 mystery novel, "The Snatchers," by Lionel White was used as a blueprint for a real-life kidnapping of a baby in France. The kidnapping went exactly as plotted, but the criminals did themselves in, running -- through the ransom money and blabbing too loudly about their escapade.

"They ran out of book," Mr. Westlake said with a laugh. "I always BTC thought they should have taken the money and hired Lionel White to write them a sequel."

Mr. Westlake decided to top this for "Jimmy the Kid": He had his Dortmunder gang, a merry band of criminals he created for a series of books, read a novel by Richard Stark, which is Mr. Westlake's pen name for another series of books, and duplicate its plot for a kidnapping.

"It was art imitating life imitating art," Mr. Westlake said.

Authors sometimes see their plots played out in real-life, disconcertingly so.

Bill Granger, a longtime Chicago newspaperman, published his first novel, "The November Man," in 1979 -- mere days, it turned out, before Lord Mountbatten, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth, was killed when an IRA-planted bomb blew up his boat.

That merits mention because of a plot twist in Mr. Granger's novel: The IRA plots to kill an English lord, the queen's first cousin, by blowing up his boat off the coast of Ireland.

It was an uncanny enough of a similarity, Mr. Granger said, that a government investigator turned up at his house to find out just how much he knew about IRA activities.

He pleads innocent. "It was just an assassination plot I came up with," said Mr. Granger, who had been a correspondent in Ireland. "I think it's just being a newspaper reporter and being aware of the world."

Maybe, but consider just how prescient Mr. Granger is: His latest novel, "The New York Yanquis," which he began writing two years ago and will be published by Arcade next month, is about how the owner of the Yankees gets rid of his team and hires . . . replacement players. (From Cuba, ergo the "Yanquis" moniker.)

When fictional scenarios seemingly come to life, especially criminal scenarios, authors are faced with the question of blame: Did they give the bad guys the idea? A 1991 murder in Sarasota, Fla., for example, seemed to parallel the plot of the novel "Postmortem," by Patricia Cornwell -- and, in fact, a copy of the book was found in the suspect's car.

Ms. Cornwell said at the time that she was no more responsible for that murder than the filmmakers of "Taxi Driver" were for the assassination attempt on President Reagan. His assailant, John Hinckley Jr., had said he was acting out the life of Travis Bickel, the taxi driver in the movie who planned to kill a politician, as a way of impressing actress Jodie Foster, who was in the movie.

The power of books, movies and television shows on impressionable minds has long been debated. Examples proliferate: Several slayings have linked -- tenuously, some believe -- to Oliver Stone's movie "Natural Born Killers," in which a couple goes on a murder rampage. The animated, and pyromaniacal, "Beavis and Butt-head" characters have been blamed for several fires started by youngsters who had seen the show on MTV.

The thriller writer who goes by the pen name Trevanian is one who takes fact-fiction blurrings seriously. In his best seller, "Shibumi," he explains in a rather self-congratulatory footnote that he will not describe certain killing tactics in detail because of "simple social responsibility." An earlier book, he writes, described a dangerous mountain climb, and an actual climber was killed re-enacting it for a movie. Another book detailed a method of stealing paintings from a museum, and, lo and behold, it was duplicated by thieves in Milan.

Closer to home was a series of robberies in Anne Arundel County in 1993 that apparently drew their inspiration from the movie "Point Break," in which the thieves wore rubber masks bearing the faces of former presidents.

Connecting fact to fiction is usually pretty subjective, of course.

When Frank Corder of Aberdeen crashed a Cessna 150 into the White House last September, did he get the idea from Tom Clancy's "Debt of Honor," published the month before, in which a pilot crashes into the Capitol where the President is ad dressing Congress?

"Now real-life bulletins from Washington," columnist Ellen Goodman concluded, "mimic a Tom Clancy thriller."

Mr. Corder was killed in the crash, so we'll never know. His family, however, offered what it thought were possible -- and real-life rather than fictional -- inspirations: the 1976 crash of a small plane into the upper deck of Memorial Stadium, and the 1987 safe landing of a plane piloted by a West German on Moscow's Red Square.

To some, the similarities between real events and fictional stories indicate not that terrorists and other criminals get ideas from books, but that everyone is drawing from the same well when it comes to devising plots. Terrorists are limited by what is possible, technologically and logistically, and novelists are limited by what is possible if they want their books to be believable.

"There are certain situations that exist in the world that a lot of people are looking at -- the criminals to exploit the situation, the police to prevent it and writers to make a colorful book out of it," said Otto Penzler, a New York-based publisher and bookseller who specializes in mysteries. "Terrorists don't go into mystery bookshops."

Indeed, when parallels are drawn, they're usually by outside observers like the media, rather than the terrorists themselves, who can't resist further dramatizing already dramatic real-life events.

"I don't think terrorists read books," agreed Larry Ashmead, executive editor at HarperCollins, which published "Deadly Perfume" in the United States a year after it was printed in Britain. "There's not much an imaginative novelist can think about that an imaginative terrorist hasn't thought of as well."

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