According to the Times, Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe, one of the most beloved PI protagonists in the mystery genre, has been appropriated yet again, this time by lit author John Banville. Banville, who has been authorized by Chandler's estate, is writing a Marlowe novel under his mystery pseudonym Benjamin Black, to be published in 2013.
In 1937 Chandler, an American raised in England who early on had literary ambitions, wrote this:
The best writing in English today is done by Americans, but not in any purist tradition. They have roughed the language around as Shakespeare did and done it the violence of melodrama and the press box. They have knocked over tombs and sneered at the dead. Which is as it should be. There are too many dead men and there is too much talk about them.
So how would Chandler feel about a Booker-prize winning Irishman appropriating his much-beloved detective? Well, we can't ask him. He died in 1959. But he did leave behind this quotation:
There is something about the literary life that repels me, all this desperate building of castles on cobwebs, the long-drawn acrimonious struggle to make something important which we all know will be gone forever in a few years, the miasma of failure which is to me almost as offensive as the cheap gaudiness of popular success.
Whatever Chandler's personal wishes were, after the end the deciding authority are always the author's heirs. More often than not money decides the issues for them; if there is some to be made, why would they walk away from it to protect the integrity of the work? Besides, however horrible the choices made are, the author can't do anything about it.
Fortunately most of us who publish will likely never have to worry about this; our books will probably not survive us for very long. At best the heirs of most traditionally-published writers can expect five to ten years of royalties before the next generation of writers takes our place. For the majority of us our titles will go out of print and in time will be completely forgotten.
But what if they aren't? What if right now you're writing the next Phillip Marlowe, and fifty years after your death some random writer decides s/he can pick up where you left off? How do you protect the work from inappropriate appropriation after your death?
Your first and best option is to consult an attorney who handles this sort of business, and learn what you can do legally to protect your work from predatory parties. Obviously this is the most expensive option, but if your work means that much to you then you won't mind spending the money.
You may also choose during your lifetime to write an irrevocable end to the works you don't want continued after your death. Killing off the characters is the most final version of this solution, but that still leaves room for prequels (and sorry, but you're just going to have to deal with that possibility.) There are other ways to handle it without exterminating your casts; one of the reasons I wrote Dream Called Time the way I did was to protect the StarDoc universe as best I could from future appropriation.
You can also have a long talk with your heirs, and make it clear what you want done with the work after your death. If you choose to do this, be reasonable, and be clear. You might even consider accepting that your work may be continued on by another, and put together for your heirs a list of writers (or the sort of writers) you'd like to see carry on the storytelling, should it ever come up for future appropriation. This allows your heirs the chance to profit from the work after your death -- which, let's face, is going to be their primary concern however much they love you -- while still respecting your wishes.
(Link to the Times article found over at J. Michael Poole's place.)