Plagiarism in Pop Culture – Law & Order: Criminal Intent (Part 1)

Seriously, the plagiarist's name is Shill... That's a bit on the nose...

Law and Order Criminal Intent Season 7

Law & Order, along with its many spin-offs, is one of the best-known and most popular police procedurals.

The show, in all of its incarnations, routinely features plots based (at least loosely) on stories from the headlines. Though the show typically pulls from various crimes, sometimes the show finds non-criminal stories and adds crimes (usually murders) to them for dramatic effect.

And that is what happened in one episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, one of the original series many spinoffs.

Criminal Intent, as I will refer to it from now on, focuses on detective Robert Goren and Alexandra Eames, who are on the New York Police Department’s “Major Case Squad” that handles crimes considered to be “high profile” for one reason or another.

The show follows as Goren and Eames follow their case through its twists, turns and dead ends until they eventually hone in on who the criminal actually is. Then, in classic mystery novel fashion, the criminal is confronted and confesses to their crimes, usually after being outwitted or pushed too far by Goren.

How will Goren and Eames handle a confrontation with a plagiarist? In episode 7 of season 7, entitled Self-made, we find out.

The Plot

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The story begins with the torture/murder of a young African-American woman named Kira Danforth.

On the night of her murder, Kira left her job at a major publisher and went to a short story reading that was referred to as her “big night”. There, she met up with an agent who said he was interested in her novel and took her away to get a drink and discuss her future.

However, when Goren and Eames first investigate the case, their focus turns to her weed-dealing boyfriend nicknamed D Tour. However, when D Tour is shot, he reveals that he stole a stash from rival dealers and the shooting was payback for that. D Tour then admits that the rival dealers paid Kira a visit and tortured her to get their drugs back, but left her alive.

After proving his alibi, suspicion turned away from D Tour and then toward the literary circles in which Kira ran in.

Initially, the focus was on TJ Hawkins, a friend of Kira’s who was a widely-successful author, and their mutual mentor, Lionel Shill. However, they say that Kira called them at the two them were eating at and that Kira said she was with literary agent Gareth Sage. Lionel warned Kira that Sage was no good and encouraged her to “get out” and come there but she never met up with them.

Goren and Eames then approached Sage, but then found him extremely uncooperative, and he said he left her at the bar. Digging into his past, the detectives learned that Sage had a long history of mistreating female authors, in particular African-American ones, and they obtained a warrant to search his car. After doing so and finding evidence Kira was inside, they forced Sage to confess that he did give Kira a ride home. However, GPS logs confirmed he was home at the time of the murder, and he only avoided telling them because of his past.

It’s at this point Goren, who had been actively reading the work of everyone involved, noticed strong similarities in Lionel’s work to Kira’s life, specifically noting that one of the characters was very similar to D Tour. After obtaining a copy of Kira’s novel in progress and confirming the facts with D Tour, Goren confronted Lionel who admitted he was a plagiarist, though he denied killing Kira.

They then interviewed TJ again. TJ had built his literary career on having done hard time in jails both in the U.S. and Yemen, but Goren quickly realized that TJ had, most likely, never been to prison. After some investigation, they confirmed that, and then they learned that Kira was supposed to review TJ’s book for the New York Times, but quickly saw through both TJ’s and Lionel’s lies and was prepared to expose them.

Goren and Eames confronted the duo with this and TJ admitted to killing Kira, but only on Lionel’s orders. Both TJ and Lionel are arrested, the first for murder and the second on conspiracy charges.

Understanding the Plagiarism

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The plagiarism in this story takes something of a backseat, and it’s really just one of multiple literary crimes. Though Lionel is certainly guilty of plagiarism, TJ is equally guilty of fabrication.

The story is clearly a play off the A Million Little Pieces scandal that took place in early 2006 (Note: This episode was released in 2007). In that story, author James Frey, who claimed to have led a wild and criminal life that he published in an autobiography, was revealed to be a fraud. Frey’s story is very similar to TJ’s as both were men who gave themselves “tough guy” personas in their autobiographies that turned out to be false.

However, Lionel’s plagiarism is also exceptionally interesting. In his most recent book, he took characters and portions of Kira’s book and presented them as his own creation. However, where Kira told the story from a first-person perspective, possibly indicating it was part of her life., Lionel told it from a third person and used it as a character in a different story.

What’s particularly interesting about Lionel’s plagiarism is the reason why he did it. A famous author in his own right, Lionel had struggled with his latest books and admitted that the most recent, the one he was accused of plagiarizing in, had sold less than 1,000 copies. Feeling pressure to recapture his former glory, but without enough ideas to make it happen, Lionel took to plagiarism.

In that regard, Lionel is definitely an accurate portrait of many plagiarists, especially those who get caught later in their career. Successful, but under pressure to maintain their status, they lift from others to buoy themselves and they do so with the (false) confidence that, because of their station, they can never truly be caught.

It’s only when, through the separate unethical act of Kira being given the chance to review a book she has a conflict of interest in, that Kira becomes powerful enough to hurt Lionel and he has to hit back.

Then, like so many plagiarists before him, Lionel uses the greatest tool his has, his ability to manipulate others, and pushes one of his acolytes to do the dirty deed for him.

So, while they definitely exaggerate some of the elements of plagiarism for the point of the story, it’s still a pretty interesting look at some of the common motivations of plagiarism and how a lot of literary plagiarism takes place.

Bottom Line

To be honest, I’m a fairly big fan of Law & Order, especially Criminal Intent. However, I had not seen this episode before writing about it and, to be completely frank, I was very skeptical about how well the series would treat the topic.

However, Criminal Intent, when compared to the other Law & Order series, likes to focus heavily on the motivations behind the crimes than it does the actual investigation. The exploration of why Lionel chose to plagiarize was actually pretty thorough and fairly accurate overall.

Though elements were exaggerated for the purpose of the story, it made its point. Lionel and his motivations were treated with complexity and nuance, making not just for an interesting story but for a decent look at the act of plagiarism itself.

That being said, this is one of at least two episodes in Criminal Intent that cover plagiarism and we’ll be looking at the other I’m aware of next time. Stay tuned!

PS: Seriously, am I the only one who think it’s a bit too on the nose to give the plagiarist the last name shill? 

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