Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Origin of Fake Books Is a Mystery

At open-air markets in Kiev this summer, devotees of Dan Brown, the best-selling author of "The Da Vinci Code," came upon what looked like an unexpected treat, a sensational new novel exploring a deep Vatican secret.

Its title, "The First Merovingian," referring to a Dark Ages European dynasty that according to myth descended from Jesus, hinted of a classic Brown story line. The book was written in response to a request that Pope John Paul II had made just before his death, a blurb on the jacket said. On the back of the attractively bound 511-page volume was a photo of Brown.

But when readers cracked the hardcover book, they were sorely disappointed.

A crude cut-and-paste job, it contained lengthy excerpts from histories of Christianity and the Inquisition interspersed with selections from a 14th-century anthology of short stories.

"This wasn't an 'honest' pirate edition," said Nikolai Naumenko, editor in chief at Brown's Russian publisher, AST, which also publishes such American authors as John Grisham and Michael Connolly. "I cannot even describe it as a book. It's trash."

For years, Moscow publishers who dominate Russian-language publishing across the former Soviet Union have complained that their books were being illegally copied by a thriving underground industry in Ukraine.

But this year, the pirates have gone one step further, patching together bogus works and attaching the names of well-known authors.

In the last year, these fakes have appeared in Ukrainian cities under the names of popular Russian authors such as Polina Dashkova, Darya Dontsova, Alexander Bushkov and Boris Akunin, according to publishers in Moscow.

"It's a painful issue for me," said Grigory Chkhartishvili, who, under the pen name Akunin, has written 11 historical crime novels featuring the detective Erast Fandorin and set in late tsarist Russia. Four of his books have been translated into English, and Akunin is gaining a large following in the West.

Now comes a counterfeit Akunin novel, "The Rook," bound in almost exactly the same kind of black-and-white jacket as legitimate Akunin books.

"Just by looking, it's very difficult to tell the difference between the fake one and a real one -- until you start reading," said Irina Bogat, general director of the Zakharov publishing house, which publishes Akunin in Russian.

"When I first got a copy, I was afraid it might be a good novel, but it's an absolute fake. Terrible. The beginning has nothing to do with the end."

Instead of the usual tsarist setting of a Fandorin novel, the action in "The Rook" takes place in present-day Russia and features a descendant of Fandorin as a main character.

Chkhartishvili said in an interview that a Ukrainian journalist told him that large parts of the novel appear to be lifted from an obscure Ukrainian novel published six or seven years ago.

It merely substitutes Fandorin's descendant for one of the original characters.

"Some readers were saying that Akunin has no shame and he'll write anything for money," Chkhartishvili said.

"I couldn't bring myself to read it. ... My wife read it. It was just awful. There were also pornographic episodes which I would never write."

The books bearing the names of Brown and Akunin cite Pheonixcher Press as the publisher, with an address in St. Petersburg.

When the writers' publishers investigated, however, they found that the address was the location of a student hostel and that there was no such publishing house in either Russia or Ukraine.

They believe, however, that the books are being printed in Ukraine.

There have been similar problems in China with fake Harry Potter novels. In 2002, a Chinese publishing house issued "Harry Potter and the Leopard-Walk-up-to-Dragon," which was in fact a translation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" with Potter and some other characters added to the mix. The publishers of the real Potter series eventually obtained an injunction stopping distribution.

Publishers here say the Ukrainian authorities are doing nothing to stop the illicit trade, despite requests, and they note bitterly that most if not all printing presses in Ukraine are state-owned.

"As Sherlock Holmes would say, this is a one-pipe mystery," said Chkhartishvili.

"In the time it would take to smoke one pipe, you could solve it. You just trace the books back to the source."