Dead Men Sometimes Tell Bestselling Tales

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Two years after Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace (pictured right) committed suicide, Little, Brown and Company is posthumously publishing his unfinished novel, The Pale King. In an interview with Time , Wallace's editor Michael Pietsch said he assembled the final version of the book by sifting through "bins and drawers and wire baskets" full of notes, outlines, and alternate versions left behind by the author. When Pietsch described the setting and plot of the nearly 500 page novel last year--“an IRS tax-return-processing center in Illinois in the mid-1980s [where] entry-level processors and their attempts to do their job in the face of soul-crushing tedium,” New York magazine's Lane Brown wondered if it would be endurable. "It's about boredom, for God's sake!" he wrote.

These concerns haven't stopped readers from gobbling up copies of the book, whose primary thematic preoccupation New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani described today as "an America plagued by tedium, monotony and meaningless bureaucratic rules and regulations that its citizens are in danger of dying of boredom." The Times reported yesterday that brick-and-mortar book vendors "erupted in protest" upon learning online outlets like Amazon (where it is currently the sixth bestselling book) were shipping The Pale Horse two weeks before its scheduled release date.

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Wallace is not the first deceased author to have an unfinished work posthumously shaped into a hit. The bestseller list has been doubling as the obituary page for years now. Other names that are turning a profit from beyond the grave.

Stieg Larsson

Larsson didn't live to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trilogy sell 27 million copies, but people are already anticipating cobbled-together versions of the fourth and fifth books in the series. Associates of the late author claim to have seen his notes and outlines for the books, which seem mainly to consist of statistics about Canada's Northwest Territories.

Michael Crichton

The author of Sphere, Jurassic Park, and other overly-detailed thrillers sold 150 million books before his death in 2008.The next year, HarperCollins printed 900,000 copies of Pirate Latitudes. According to the book's inside flap, it was "discovered as a complete manuscript in [Crichton's] files" by his assistant after his death. When exactly Crichton (pictured right) wrote the text is unclear. Janet Maslin observed in her New York Times review that the book has "the stiff, uncomfortable tone of [Crichton's] early work," with none of the "polarizing energy" of his later output. His second posthumous work is scheduled to arrive in stores later this year. According to a separate Times article, Crichton was "only about a third of the way through" the untitled thriller when he died, and he "never showed his agent or his editor any material" from the book, which is being completed by a ghostwriter.

Robert Ludlum

15 months after Ludlum's death in 2001, he was credited as an executive producer on the adaptation of his novel The Bourne Identity. He didn't get that credit on the two Bourne sequels that followed 2004 and 2007, possibly because he was too busy posthumously writing spy thrillers to posthumously produce any more movies. From 2001 through 2006, five books were published under Ludlum's name. Compare this to the last five years of his living career, when he only wrote two books. Only 2001's The Sigma Protocol was written completely by Ludlum. The other four, according to various media accounts, were "scrubbed," "spruced up," or "tighten[ed]" versions of existing notes, draft, and outlines.Readers haven't seemed to notice any drop-off, with 2006's The Bancroft Strategy peaking at nine on The New York Times best-seller chart.

Mark Twain

Unlike the other authors on this list, Twain (pictured right) completed the work that fueled his posthumous success before his death, only to prohibit publication of the autobiography until 100 years after his death. The embargo expired last year, and Twain's memoirs sold a surprising 275,000 copies, not bad for a book the New York Times (accurately) characterized as a " $35, four-pound, 500,000-word doorstopper."

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