Harry Potter and the disappearing books

A truckload of the latest Potter installment - worth hundreds of thousands of dollars - goes missing.

There's skulduggery and treachery in the world of Harry Potter, but this time it's not Lord Voldemort who's behind it.

The fifth tome in the internationally bestselling series penned by British author J.K. Rowling will be released on Saturday, but it's the drama happening off the page that's providing all the mystery.

The plot thickened this week as the newest volume, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," fell victim to theft, again.

On Sunday evening, a truck filled with more than 7,500 copies vanished in northern England - a haul worth some $220,000.

The missing truck was recovered Monday, about 18 miles from the warehouse in northern England where it had been parked - but without the books.

Earlier this month, a British forklift driver was convicted of stealing part of the novel from the printing firm where he worked.

The publisher fears that the forces of evil will divulge plot details before the magical hour when the novel finally hits bookshelves.

"We hope that nobody will spoil the excitement for all the Harry Potter fans who are looking forward to reading the book from one minute past midnight on Saturday, June 21," says Lucy Chapman, from Ms. Rowling's publisher, Bloomsbury, adding that anyone handling the books could face criminal charges.

Book theft is, of course, nothing new. Valuable antiquities are highly prized, and in recent years, tomes authored by Copernicus, Shakespeare, and Chaucer have all gone missing.

But the theft of a book before it is published is something rare, and highlights the bewildering frenzy surrounding the Harry Potter phenomenon.

So intense is the interest in the new novel's plot that a market hungry for prepublication revelations has cropped up. So massive is the Potter mania cultural phenomenon that villains know there will always be a market for first-edition Harry Potter books.

"The first edition is really expensive; it's the one the collectors collect," says Katie Levell, a London-based literary agent.

"They realize these editions are going to be worth a lot of money in years to come."

Rowling and Harry Potter have cast a spell over publishing, weaving their magic at a time when books in general - and children's books in particular - were perceived as unfashionable. The bespectacled boy-wizard popped up from nowhere in 1997 and become an instantly recognizable icon.

"It's rather exciting for people in the book industry to see that the biggest cultural phenomenon of modern times is a book - at a time when so many people think books are outmoded forms of entertainment," says Nicholas Clee, editor of the trade journal Bookseller.

Whatever its literary virtues and weaknesses, fans say the fact that a book can create global hysteria among children, in an age dominated by computer screens, speaks volumes.

The books have been translated into 55 languages, with nearly 200 million copies of the first four volumes sold in 200 countries.

In 2000, the fourth book, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," became the fastest-selling book in history. And Rowling is now richer than the queen, with a fortune estimated at $450 million.

Harry Potter may be the most popular children's book ever - extolled as an imaginative fantasy that appeals to kids and their parents - but not everyone is spellbound by the wizard trainee and his supernatural chums.

Detractors say the prose is lamentable, while some in the Christian community criticize the books for propagating the occult - some libraries in both Germany and the US have banned the books from their shelves amid concerns that they encourage witchcraft.

Though many in the publishing industry do not begrudge Rowling her success (she wrote her first book while a single mother on welfare) some have grown weary of a hysteria that pushes out other writers.

"She has a good reputation in the industry, but the ... issue is the amount of space she takes up in bookshops," says Ms. Levell. "Publishers may decide not publish at the same time because there is no space in the shops or the windows."

Some authors have been tempted to piggy-back on Rowling's success, producing a mushrooming string of copycat novels.

There are those, like the self- published tome by an English vicar, Graham Turner, that appear to be genuine attempts to muscle in on the genre without usurping Rowling's original idea.

But other more blatant spin-offs have the Potter industry crying plagiarism. Authors in Russia, China, and India have all either borrowed heavily or pirated the Potter myth - to much acclaim from an insatiable readership grown tired of waiting for the next genuine Rowling product.

Rowling and her publishers have struck back, suing the Russian author of "Tanya Grotter and the Magical Double Bass," and forcing two Indian spin-offs out of print.

Some aggrieved copycat authors argue that Rowling should not have a monopoly over fantasy tales. Wizards and witches, after all, have long been the stuff of children's books.

And local spin-offs may, moreover, be more affordable to children in developing countries, who otherwise could not purchase the genuine article.

But the publishing industry has no doubt where the line should be drawn - legitimate translations are fair game, as are parallel yarns that don't trespass on the Harry Potter characters or places. "But if you take an author's characters and settings then it's clearly plagiarism," says Mr. Clee.

Rowling herself has yet to comment on the latest theft of her intellectual and physical property. But her first Harry Potter book makes plain that she takes a dim view of any attempt to plagiarize, pirate, or steal:

"So if you seek beneath our floor/ A treasure that was never yours/ Thief you have been warned beware/ Of finding more than treasure there."

Material from the wire services was used in this report.

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