Bodice Rip-Off

updated 08/18/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/18/1997 01:00AM

WHEN ROMANCE NOVELIST JANET Dailey was inducted into the Writers Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mo., last April 17, she was treated to a dramatic reading from one of her books—the 1984 bestseller Silver Wings, Santiago Blue. "Wow!" gushed Dailey, 53, one of the country's most popular female authors, when it was over. "Did I write that?"

It may have been the Freudian slip of the year. On July 28, Dailey stunned the publishing world and legions of fans by admitting she hadn't written some of the hugely successful fiction that appears under her name: Two of her 93 books, Aspen Gold and Notorious, she acknowledged, contained passages and ideas copied directly from the works of rival romance author and friend Nora Roberts. At the same time, Dailey offered an explanation almost as baffling as the plagiarism itself. In a statement, she said her "acts of copying" are caused by "a psychological problem that I never even suspected I had." She went on: "I have already begun treatment for the disorder and have been assured that, with treatment, this behavior can be prevented in the future." She apologized to Roberts and to her readers and publishers. Dailey declined to be interviewed for this article and has not elaborated on the precise nature of her disorder.

The confessed plagiarism—which appears to have been more than an isolated incident—occurred in the early '90s, a time when the author "was under great professional and personal stress, including losing two brothers to cancer and nursing her husband through treatment for lung cancer," the statement read. Compounding her anguish, her publicist Sanford Brokaw told The Washington Post, was the fact that the Daileys "had a dog that was 13 years old that died."

For Roberts, that dog won't hunt. "We all have difficult periods," says the 46-year-old author of more than 124 books. "You don't use that as an excuse to steal." Dailey's publisher, Harper-Collins, would seem to agree. The company has stopped all sales of the aptly named Notorious, and a spokeswoman, Laura Leonard, says the company will "reevaluate" Dailey's current three-book contract. "We're worried about Janet," says Leonard. "It's not the best situation."

No, indeed. The discovery that Dailey had plagiarized passages from Roberts's 1989 book Sweet Revenge was first made in May; while surfing a romance-writing cyber site from her home near Boonsboro, Md., Roberts noticed a posting from a woman who'd read Notorious and Sweet Revenge back-to-back and wanted to know why both books contained the same scenes. "I thought, 'Whoa! Better check it out'," says Roberts.

After sending her son Jason to fetch a copy of Notorious from a bookstore owned by her husband, Bruce Wilder, she discovered more "borrowed" passages. It "was like someone had hit me," says Roberts, who has since found more books with plagiarized sections. She says other romance novelists are at work deconstructing Dailey's oeuvre to see if they, too, can find their words in her books. They well may. In her statement, Dailey made a preemptive apology for "any similar actions" that might be discovered.

Until now, Dailey appeared to have been living the life of one of her heroines—right down to the 20-acre, plantation-style homestead in Branson, Mo. Born in Storm Lake, Iowa, she was a young secretary in Bill Dailey's Omaha construction company when she married the divorced father of five soon after meeting him in 1963. After hearing his wife say once too often that she could write a better novel than the ones she was reading, Bill dared her to do it—and she did, publishing her first book, a Harlequin romance, in 1976.

In the years since, Bill's role has grown to that of business manager and more. As Janet told it in a 1996 biography, he tells her when to begin writing and provides her with the research. If laziness sets in, said Dailey, with apparent admiration, he responds by telling her to "shut up and just sit there." For his part, Bill bragged that he does everything "but the final typing" on all his wife's books.

Roberts, however, has done little typing lately. She couldn't write a word for a month after the plagiarism came to light. Still, she says she could have forgiven Dailey had she owned up to everything and written a generous check to the Literacy Volunteers of America, her favorite charity. Whether the publishing world is as inclined to forgive is another question. Plagiarism is "a kind of bogeyman that hangs over publishers," says New York City literary agent Peter Matson. He agrees that Dailey's best hope is to make restitution and stay in therapy. After that, he adds, "the best solace is probably writing another book." Pause. "Of her own."

CURTIS RIST
KATE KLISE in Springfield, MARIA EFTIMIADES in New York City and DON SIDER in Orlando

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