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How the internet built a conspiracy theory around a new spy flick, a debut novel, and Taylor Swift

The Argylle authorship controversy, explained.

Howard sits at desk, typing at a computer.
Bryce Dallas Howard as a suspiciously Swiftian-looking Elly Conway in Argylle.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The internet has gone into a frenzy over Argylle, a forthcoming spy movie, and its supposed source material, a yet-to-be-published novel by one Elly Conway. The author’s identity is a buzzy mystery far more gripping than novel itself: Is Elly Conway actually Taylor Swift?

The thing is, Elly Conway doesn’t seem to exist. She does appear as a (suspiciously Swiftian) character played by Bryce Dallas Howard in the trailer for Argylle, but there’s no trace of her in real life except for almost comically fake-looking profiles on Twitter and Instagram. Someone, clearly, has decided to make it look as if Elly Conway is an actual person — and why do that (people on the internet have demanded) if she is not a globally renowned superstar who wants to keep her head down on her fun writing hobby?

Allow me to present my own, much less scintillating and much more mundane theory. What we are dealing with here appears to be at worst a good old-fashioned movie tie-in novel with a clever marketing plan, and at best a fun metafictional game in the spirit of The Princess Bride.

Let’s get into the details.

What’s the big mystery here?

Argylle the movie is directed by Matthew Vaughn of Kingsman, and it stars Henry Cavill, Ariana DeBose, Bryan Cranston, Dua Lipa, and Bryce Dallas Howard as Elly Conway herself. It comes with a hefty price tag. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Apple paid $200 million for the deal — although no one has reported on whether Apple was paying for the book’s film rights, just that the movie would be based on the book.

In the film, author Conway is a central character, a writer thrust into the all-too-real world of her own spy novels. As Vaughn told the Happy Sad Confused podcast in October, “I love the idea of what would happen if J.K. Rowling met a wizard and was real.”

Vaughn explained on that podcast that his Argylle movie would be based on the as-yet-unwritten fourth volume in Conway’s Argylle series, saying, “I read the book, they bought the manuscript of the book, and met with [writer Jason] Fuchs, and we just came up with this.” Vaughn went on to explain that “Book 4, which is what the movie’s based around, was the one that would work for it. Mr. Lucas was clever enough to start Star Wars with Episode 4, so why not us?”

The thing is: Those first three books haven’t been published either. Only the first volume has even been written, and it didn’t come out until this February. Vaughn seems to be implying here that he saw descriptions of the planned later volumes and thought the fourth would suit his purposes.

It would be a huge deal for a first-time author to land a $200 million movie deal with this kind of star power in it. Yet when reporters tried to track down Conway, she proved elusive. She had almost no internet presence. When the Hollywood Reporter first went looking for Conway in September, all that was connected to her was an empty Instagram account with nine followers, one of them a Bryce Dallas Howard fan account.

In December, Conway started to put her Instagram account to use. “How do you fluster an introvert?” she wrote in an early post. “Publish her first novel, have Matthew Vaughn buy the movie rights, then tell her she has to start using social media for ‘visibility.’”

“Something’s fishy,” an anonymous Hollywood producer who has worked with Vaughn told the New York Post in January.

How did Taylor Swift get dragged into this?

In the trailer for Vaughn’s movie, Bryce Dallas Howard’s portrayal of Elly Conway has what I can only call a Swiftian aesthetic.

Howard’s wavy red hair is reminiscent of the red wig Swift donned to play a writer in All Too Well: The Short Film, and her big cozy cardigan could easily be a nod to, well, “Cardigan.” For many Swifties, though, the smoking gun was the cat. In the trailer, Elly totes her cat around in a specially designed backpack with a window, exactly like the one Swift wears in her Netflix documentary Miss Americana. Moreover, Elly’s cat is a Scottish Fold, the same squishy-faced breed as Swift’s two famously doted-upon kitties. For some Swift fans, the coincidences seemed to be too many to bear.

“I’m sorry to put it this way, but it really has the Swiftie erogenous zone covered,” Ringer staff writer Nora Princiotti said in the Washington Post.

“imagine if this is just a random writer and not TS I’ll die dead,” wrote one Swift fan on Conway’s Instagram.

Swift is famously one of the hardest-working women in show business, but it takes a fair amount of willful suspension of disbelief to imagine that, while she was in the middle of a record-breaking world tour, she also found the time to write one book in a mystery series and plot out the details of all its sequels. Nonetheless, when you create a mystery, it calls the mystery-minded. Swifties are some of our most dedicated detectives.

In a recent interview on The Graham Norton Show, Howard acknowledged the similarities between her character and Swift, at the same time denying Swift was in any way connected with the film.

“We can’t pretend she was involved,” Howard said. “The reality is she was in many ways a great inspiration. She is a cat lady. She’s got this awesome backpack with a cat in [it] that she walks around with. She loves a good argyle sweater, and there is a sort of unapologetic dorkiness about her. That’s a little bit like what my character is like.”

Who really wrote the book?

Argylle the book, unlike the movie, has no metafictional elements. It’s a straightforward spy novel, and it was almost certainly written by the British thriller writer Tammy Cohen.

Washington Post writer Sophia Nguyen did the legwork here. In the acknowledgments for Argylle, Conway thanks Robert Massey, a British astronomer who she says explained star charts to her. Nguyen called Massey up, and Massey told her that while he talked to “a novelist writing a contracted spy thriller for Penguin Random House,” her name wasn’t Elly Conway. It was Tammy Cohen.

Tammy Cohen has stayed mum on the issue of whether or not she is Elly Conway. Nonetheless, she fits the profile. She’s written multiple midlist spy novels, like Argylle, most recently When She Was Bad (2016) and They All Fall Down (2017). While Conway is supposed to be from upstate New York, Argylle is laced with Britishisms, and Cohen is British. She even has a connection to Vaughn. Her agent, Felicity Blunt, is married to Stanley Tucci, who appeared in Vaughn’s The King’s Man.

Cohen doesn’t appear to have a Scottish Fold cat. Vaughn, however, does. He told Vanity Fair he used his daughter’s pet cat for the shoot after the professional acting cat he hired “was useless.” In addition, the Argylle novel is copyrighted to Marv Quinn Holdings Limited, a company registered to Vaughn and his wife.

Here’s what I think happened: Matthew Vaughn wanted to make a metafictional spy movie that poked gentle fun at the spy tropes he’s used in his previous movies. He decided it should be about a writer of spy novels who finds that her books are more accurate than she could have guessed, and he came up with the Elly Conway character to serve that purpose. As a cute movie tie-in, Vaughn or someone at his studio decided to publish a version of the book Elly Conway is writing in the movie, so Vaughn poked around through his Hollywood connections to find a career thriller writer who could put together a solid midlist spy novel. Cohen fit the bill.

Why keep the real Argylle author’s identity a secret?

If I’m right, this would not be the first time that a fictional author published a book.

You can buy mysteries written by Richard Castle of Castle, and Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote. You can buy a romance novel by Mia Thermopolis of The Princess Diaries. You can buy Ant-Man’s memoir.

In those cases, though, no one pretended that Richard Castle et al were real people. The names on the covers of the books were the names of fictional characters, but the publishers made it clear that the books themselves were ghostwritten by real people.

So why is Vaughn being so coy about Argylle?

I think the best analogue to turn to here is the original novel version of The Princess Bride. That book, which predated the film, was written by the great screenwriter William Goldman in a loving homage to and satire of the adventure novels he’d grown up reading.

As part of the story of The Princess Bride, Goldman developed a witty frame narrative. The true Princess Bride, he informed readers in a lengthy introduction, was a great 19th-century novel by the immortal Florinese author S. Morgenstern. (Florin, you will note, is not a real country.) The real Princess Bride was also, according to Goldman, unspeakably dull — hundreds of pages of impenetrable social commentary and political satire, periodically interspersed with brilliant chapters of romance and adventure.

To save us all from Morgenstern’s highbrow story-killing ways, Goldman concluded, he’d cut the whole thing down to size, and annotated the text helpfully whenever one of his cuts affected the plot. He’d given us just the pure story, the good stuff.

The whole thing was so convincing that readers regularly walk away convinced that there is an unabridged Princess Bride out there, and that they can find it if they only work hard enough. Goldman managed to do the thing writers dream of: make the world he created feel so real that you could still believe in it after you closed the book. That’s part of what made the book magic.

Vaughn is, I think, aiming to do something similar here. He’s making the frame story of his movie true, lifting one of his characters off the screen and into real life. He’s not telling anyone who wrote Argylle because admitting Elly Conway isn’t real means killing the magic.

If nothing else, the Elly Conway trick is a fitting maneuver for our age of endless Hollywood IP grabs.

“This [Argylle the movie] is not based on any IP that I’m aware of,” said Josh Horowitz, host of Happy Sad Confused, as he interviewed Vaughn in October.

“Define IP,” shot back Vaughn.

Right now, movies are left for dead at the box office if they’re not based on existing source material. If you want to improve your original movie’s changes, what’s a better bet than manufacturing your own IP for it out of whole cloth? And if a bunch of devoted Swifties want to go looking for their fave in it, all the better.

Update, January 26, 11:45 am ET: This article was originally published on January 23. It has been updated with Bryce Dallas Howard’s quote.

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