That the two books arrived on Cynthia Martin Kiss' nightstand at the same time was sheer coincidence.

One, "The Primary Colors," a recent book by Alexander Theroux, had received a glowing review in The New York Times Book Review, so she bought a copy. The other, "Song of the Sky," a 1954 book on navigation by Guy Murchie, which is out of print, had been recommended by a friend.One cold Saturday night in December, having finished "The Primary Colors," Kiss picked up "Song of the Sky."

Fourteen pages into the book, she ran across what felt like a familiar passage. The author was exploring the color white. Kiss had just read Theroux's meditations on blue, yellow and red. She chuckled to herself that she might have discovered Theroux's muse.

But by page 29 of "Song of the Sky," she said early this week, "a chill went up my spine."

She read these words: "Blue water is salty, warm, and deep and speaks of the tropics where evaporation is great and dilution small - the Sulu Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Gulf Stream. Green water is cool, pale with particles, thin with river and rain, often shallow. In the tropics it means land, just as in the north with white jigsaw ice it means a frozen bay is close."

She grabbed "The Primary Colors" and leafed through its pages until, on page 16, she found this passage: "Incidentally, blue water is invariably salty, warm, and deep and speaks of the tropics, where evaporation is great and dilution minimal - the Sulu Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Gulf Stream." The next two sentences were almost identical as well.

Kiss, who worked in publishing in Manhattan before becoming a technical editor in Connecticut, found several other passages in "Song of the Sky" that reappeared in Theroux's "Primary Colors."

She checked Theroux's book for footnotes or an acknowledgment to Murchie but found neither. So she wrote both Murchie and The New York Times Book Review, seeking an explanation.

When asked this week about the similarities, Theroux's editor at Henry Holt & Co., Allen Peacock, said he had not been aware of them and would get in touch with the author. Later, he said Theroux had unintentionally neglected to credit Murchie.

Reached Thursday in California, where he was traveling, Theroux said the copied passages were a result of "stupidity and bad note taking."

He said he had read hundreds of books, including "Song of the Sky," while gathering material for "The Primary Colors." But he said his notes from "Song of the Sky" were for a book he was writing on Amelia Earhart and must have got mixed with notes for "The Primary Colors."

Asked why passages appeared verbatim - in one case beginning with the words, "I remember my surprise on first seeing the Yellow Sea" - Theroux replied that he, too, had seen the Yellow Sea, in the late 1960s. When going over his notes years later, he mistook Murchie's words for his own, he said.

"I just thought it was my own work," he said. "I can't always remember the source of where I found something."

In fact, "The Primary Colors," a mosaic of cultural and historic references to color, cites hundreds of other authors, artists and uncelebrated people. But Murchie, now 88, is not among those credited.

He said by telephone from his home in California on Wednesday that Theroux never sought, nor was granted, permission to use material from the 423-page "Song of the Sky."

"I was a little disgruntled with him for doing it," he said.

Murchie, a former feature writer and war correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, became an airline navigator after World War II.

As he flew back and forth across the North Atlantic seated in the back of a cockpit, he would pencil his observations about the air and navigation. Those words became "Song of the Sky," published by Houghton Mifflin in 1954 and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection that year.

Rights to the book, which went out of print in 1973, belong to Murchie, who published five other books with Houghton Mifflin.

Three of those, "Music of the Spheres," "The Seven Mysteries of Life" and "The Soul School," are still in print.

Murchie and his wife, Marie, said Thursday that they were pursuing a lawsuit against Theroux and Henry Holt, alleging plagiarism.

Authors sometimes charge other writers with stealing their ideas. But it is rare for one to charge another with appropriating passages word for word.

Publishers, for their part, are loath to admit such wrongdoing, but if faced with incontrovertible proof, they may correct future editions, or even, in rare cases, recall books.

Peacock said Thursday that the 12,500 copies of "The Primary Colors" already distributed would not be recalled, but that future editions would credit Murchie or omit the offending passages.

"We at Holt are glad this has been brought to our attention and will see that the problems are corrected in any future editions of the work," he said. "But we also have full confidence in Alexander Theroux's honesty and artistic integrity and we will do everything in our power to correct the situation."

Theroux, a well-known essayist and novelist, has received generous praise for his new book. John Updike, in a jacket blurb, described the book as "an amazing display of omnidirectional erudition."

Parts of the book were printed in two magazines, Harper's and Arts & Antiques.

An examination of both books indicates that six passages in "The Primary Colors," which involves highly descriptive meditations on the three colors, appear to have been taken from "Song of the Sky" with no attribution.

In some cases, punctuation or a few words have been changed. In others, the text is identical.

Theroux, 50, who lives in West Barnstable, Mass., has taught at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University and the University of Virginia. Brother of the writer Paul Theroux, he is best known for his novel "Darconville's Cat" (1981).

Peacock said Theroux was working on two books to follow "The Primary Colors," which was published in September. "Secondary Colors" is to be published next fall, and "Black and White" does not have a publication date.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Same words, different titles

Song of the Sky, Page 29: "Blue water is salty, warm, and deep and speaks of the tropics where evaporation is great and dilution small - the Sulu Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Gulf Stream. Green water is cool, pale with particles, thin with river and rain, often shallow."

The Primary Colors, Page 16: "Incidentally, blue water is invariably salty, warm, and deep and speaks of the tropics, where evaporation is great and dilution minimal - the Sulu Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Gulf Stream. Green water, on the other hand, is cool, pale with particles, thin with river and rain, often shallow."

Song of the Sky, Page 170: "In May 1937, during a southwest gale yellow sand fell in Canton Basle, Switzerland, so heavily that the countryside appeared swathed in a strange sulphuric fog. The sand was later proved to be from the Sahara Desert a thousand miles away and it must have been picked up by a simoom to be blown over the Alps at above 12,000 feet."

The Primary Colors, Page 85: "In May 1937, during a southwest gale, yellow sand fell in Canton Basle, Switzerland, so heavily that the countryside appeared swathed in a strange sulphuric fog. The sand was later proved to be from the Sahara Desert a thousand miles away, and it must have been picked up by a simoom to be blown over the Alps at above 12,000 feet."

Song of the Sky, Page 29: "I remember my surprise on first seeing the Yellow Sea which is indeed intensely yellow far out of sight of the estuaries of the Yangtze, the Whangpoo, and the Whang Ho."

The Primary Colors, Page 92: "I remember my surprise on first seeing the Yellow Sea, which is indeed intensely yellow far out of sight of the estuaries of the Yangtze, the Huangpu, and the Huang Ho."