NOVEMBER 1, 2014
BRADFORD MORROW’s seventh novel takes us into the rarified world of bibliophiles and literary forgers. Our narrator and guide is Will, who is a master at literary forgery. Since Will tells us quite openly that deception and fraudulence have long been his stock-in-trade, we know at once that we are in the land of the untrustworthy narrator. The Forgers takes place in the antiquarian book business, and Will is a prime suspect in the murder of Adam Diehl. Adam, another forger, is the brother of Will’s lover Meghan, and is found dead one morning in his small Montauk home with his hands removed; around him is a mess of books and manuscripts, irreparably damaged. Meghan, always close to her brother, is devastated, but Will doesn’t seem all that upset. He and Adam never got along well anyway, as the two of them were locked in a competition for Meghan’s attention and endearments. The police quickly rule out Meghan as a suspect, and though they question Will intensely, they find that he has an alibi.
Ever so gradually, Will and Meghan get on with their lives, trying to put the brutal killing behind them. Things go well for a while, but then Will starts getting alarming handwritten letters. The letters declare that the writer knows that Will killed Adam Diehl, and each letter is signed by A Conan Doyle. Who is writing these letters? In the bibliophile/forger world, Will is known as a Doyle aficionado, so the writer must be part of his milieu. But why is the writer out to get Will? We now have a second mystery on top of the original crime, and Will wants to find and confront his tormenter without letting Meghan know of his difficulties. He is desperate to keep his relationship with her strong. If nothing else, he does love Meghan.
The Forgers fits into that ambiguous slot often called literary mystery — a genre tag that implies mysteries generally aren’t literary, that the work we are dealing with is deeper, or better written, than a typical mystery. Is The Forgers literary and a true mystery novel? Does it satisfy both its genre and extra-genre requirements? No.
It is at its best when examining the nature of forgery. What kind of person becomes a forger? How does he see himself? Is it just a way to make money? Or does his freakish talent suggest a genuine yearning inside, a desire to produce something beautiful, if not original?
There’s no question where Will stands. Convicted once for forgery, he is trying to give it up for good. Meghan has demanded that he stop, for one thing, and threatens to leave him if he doesn’t. But he finds that shaking his passion isn’t easy. And it is a passion, not merely a way to make money. It’s all-consuming and pleasurable. He describes it in the terms an artist would use, his ego and ambition large:
Whenever I sold my handiwork to an experienced bookseller for a considerable sum, I knew I had once again hoodwinked the world even as I had made it a richer, more luminous place. I thought […] I could rest assured that my spurious inscribed books, my fake letters and manuscripts, could travel the precincts of bibliographic connoisseurship with the perfect invisibility of the authentic, above reproach, for all intents and purposes real. Such refined beguilement was the alpha and omega of my art.
Will brings an ironic meaning to the imperative do what you love. He makes it clear that he considers the highest level of literary forgery “as informed by genius as any of your everyday authentic originals. It’s just that the creativity involved is of an altogether different variety.” He cites Elmyr de Hory, the famous 20th-century art forger, who said that if you hang his canvases in a museum with genuine masterpieces and keep them there long enough, it would be impossible to say which were fakes and which real. What makes the original so much more valuable than the so-called counterfeit? Morrow touches on such thought-provoking questions in his book, and he creates an intriguing picture of book sellers and book collectors who, despite their shared passion for old volumes, letters, papers, and documents, never can trust each other when they make deals. He’s effective at depicting the shadowy side of the bibliophile community; like all subcultures, it has its own codes of conduct, rivalries, and vendettas. In this circle of obsessives and eccentrics, a seemingly innocuous booksellers’ show can turn into a place where murder might occur, as Morrow shows in a tense scene at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan. Here, like a set piece in a movie, a dangerous game of cat and mouse unfolds between Will and the forger who is his nemesis.
The novel is less successful as a mystery. To his credit, Morrow has not written something that reads as a parody of a mystery or that in any way condescends to the form. The book is a genuine whodunit, with the answer to the question of who killed Adam Diehl withheld until the final pages. Throughout, the police are on the story’s periphery, so the sleuth, in effect, is Will. His interaction with the enemy forger dovetails with his investigation into the murder. Morrow makes an earnest attempt to tell a tale of heightening suspense, with twists and turns and a red herring or two. But the mystery just isn’t all that compelling. Will’s voice doesn’t help things; it’s a given that he’s bookish, but unfortunately he’s bookish with an aggressively self-conscious voice, an overtly literary-sounding voice. As the book progresses, this voice grates. When the narrative should be charging toward its conclusion late in the book, we get meandering passages like this one:
Daybreak was unusually radiant. Not a cloud confiscated an acre of the sky. The air, when I cracked our window to clear away the stuffiness in the bedroom, was soft and savory. Outside, birdsong rang in the woods, a mockingbird, I believe, or one that loved rehearsing its call over and over. It was as if we had slept through winter and magically awakened on the first day of spring. For a blessed few minutes, Diehl and Slader and Atticus and every forgery and transgression I had ever been involved with didn’t exist, had not happened. I could never remember the word for this half-sleep, half-awake state of being — hypnagogic was it or hypnopompic? — but a deep part of me wished I could remain caught in its sweet limbo longer than life allowed.
It’s pretty writing, but there is too much of it, and not enough straight-on narrative drive. Morrow fails to mesh the character-driven dictates of a mainstream novel with the forward-moving plot imperatives of a genre piece. His need to show off his stylistic chops slows the story down, weakening the suspense. And despite the attempts at misdirection, it’s fairly obvious who the murderer is. The revelation elicits a shrug, and what’s supposed to be a chilling note leaves the reader underwhelmed. The Forgers works as a meticulous character study and as a trip through the little-seen, hothouse world of rare book collectors, but it’s an inauthentic mystery.