How many of the most famous and popular mysteries and thrillers are actually written by the name on the byline? Often the author has a lot of edits by way of their editor; other times, they don’t even really write the book, paying a book doctor or ghostwriter to take care of it. The world of ghostwriting continues to be as mysterious as the books we devour. In an effort to shine a light on the contractual role of the ghostwriter, we dug into seven writers who ended up writing not only some of our most beloved mysteries under their own name—but also writing under the veil of the ghost.
I, Alex Cross
One of the most famous writers doesn’t even really write. He is a creator, a director of books and his name has become less that of an author and more a brand. However, his empire began with Patterson writing books with the now classic Alex Cross starring in every thriller. Patterson represents a unique side of ghostwriting, in that his name is everywhere, even if he didn’t write the book. Patterson lends his brand-name to writers who often share the byline as a means of getting their own authorial name more recognition. In essence, Patterson enlists a legion of ghostwriters to fuel his empire of mysteries and thrillers. Hate it or not, it’s inspiring and he proudly wears the “ghostwritten” fact on his sleeve.
Crichton had one of the best minds in the business of mysteries and thrillers. The creator of Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain, he left behind tons of ideas when he passed away at the age of 66. Early in his career, while studying to be a doctor, Crichton wrote under pennames like, John Lange and Jeffery Hudson, fearing that the fiction writer gig might intervene with his studies. This was before he embraced his talent and success, wearing his name proudly. Though not a ghostwriter, per se, Crichton has become a bit of a name worn by ghostwriters posthumously. It represents what often happens when an author is no longer with us. Their unfinished work and ideas are mined by their estate and their publisher to make money. When people are more likely to love you when you’re dead, Crichton lives on through books like Micro, written by Richard Preston.
You would think that someone like H.P. Lovecraft would embrace every twisted tale birthed from his overactive imagination but he famously ghostwrote the classic novella, The Mound. Hired by Zealia Bishop and was given the following plot synopsis, “There is an Indian mound near here, which is haunted by a headless ghost. Sometimes it is a woman.” It seemed pretty straight forward, which is likely why Lovecraft found little pleasure or anything to be proud of in the story. This can be a common reason for authors with a readership choosing a penname or foregoing to have a byline at all. They need the money but do not find the work to be indicative of their vision and talents. Lovecraft was a prominent ghostwriter, writing and editing for the aforementioned Bishop and other clients like Hazel Heald and C.M. Eddy Jr. He made his money doing this, a practice during the time that was likely still a unique career path.
The Long Walk
If you’re as famous as Stephen King, you’re probably going to feel a bit of pressure to write a certain way, and to write at a level that might inhibit narrative experimentation. There was Richard Bachman, a penname King used to publish books like The Long Walk and Rage. Fearing that his success might have been pure luck, he used the penname to see if he could find success a second time. That’s the dramatic version of the tale. The far more likely explanation for the pseudonym had to do with King writing faster than the publishing industry could produce the books. Limited to one book a year, King would end up sitting on dozens, maybe hundreds, of books if he didn’t try putting them out with a different name. The children’s book, Charlie and the Choo-Choo: From The World of the Dark Tower was published under another penname of his, Beryl Evans. To date, King has embraced the pennames, often turning Bachman into a character in his stories and lore. It’s an interesting take on one of the most successful writing careers of all time. One has to wonder what King will do next to test the waters, writing differently in an effort to curtail both pressure and being incredibly prolific.
The success author RL Stine has experienced has led to some controversy and a legal dispute between the author and publisher Scholastic. Everyone’s read a Goosebumps title. They introduced an entire generation (or two) to the wonder and awe of horror and mystery. Be it Monster Blood or Attack of the Mutant, Goosebumps has found a place in the minds of so many readers. So, when Stine was outed as having employed ghostwriters for the series, it became quite the big news story. Scholastic accused Stine of only writing the first sixteen books, with the rest published produced using freelancers. The veil of the NDA that most ghostwriters sign make it difficult to get the truth. Stine refutes the claims to this day, though there have been whispers from his estate of Stine and company using freelancers to “help” with creating story outlines for titles in the series.
The Hunt for Red October
A bestselling author can be big business. Like the aforementioned James Patterson, Tom Clancy’s name has become a brand used by authors to earn a living and get their name out there. Clancy wrote his early work and had developed a reputation for being difficult to work with among editors. He was stubborn and refused to change anything, but over time, as his star rose, he founded a collaborative component to his career, with so many writers working with him to get that co-writer byline. Author Jerome Preisler described what it was like working with Clancy to venues like the Paris Review. Everything about it was work, with a strict 10-month deadline. There was no room for error or missing the deadline, seeing how most of the books were already in high demand (read: presales). Clancy’s name has been used on more than just co-written books; there’s a line of military videogames, numerous ghost-written scripts that became Clancy-inspired films and shows. Tom Clancy’s name lives on in his death as a recognizable touchstone in mysteries and thrillers that have a distinct military edge.
The Hidden Staircase
Perhaps one of the more well-known ghostwriting scenarios, is the children’s book series employing ghost writers. One of the most notable is Alice Leonhardt wrote into the Nancy Drew series (whose byline belongs to Carolyn Keene). Leonhardt is a prolific ghostwriter that has discussed on-record how a popular series enters production. From a series “Bible” or a text with all the gritty details of its characters and timelines to keep them in check, to the often-frenetic deadlines and turn-around times, it takes a very special kind of writer to be successful at ghostwriting. Publishers need good writers, and a lot of them, to keep these series alive and selling well (they pump them out sometimes one or two a month!)
Related: Every Nancy Drew Adaptation, Ranked