“THEY never found his hands.” Thus begins Bradford Morrow’s crime thriller, The Forgers, grabbing the reader’s attention with its intriguingly disturbing first sentence while setting a fascinating scene around which the narrative unfolds. The former possessor of said hands is Adam Diehl, a reclusive book collector, who succumbs to his injuries 10 days after he is attacked. A murder investigation ensues. The press is drawn to the story, with one tabloid dubbing the slaying “The Manuscript Murder”. But with few further developments in the case, the media soon begins to lose interest.
The narrator, however, does not. He is the boyfriend of the victim’s sister, Meghan, and doesn’t like being referred to by his name, which is only mentioned once in the book: “shadow men never like being called by name,” he tells us. His past is evidently chequered. He is a former forger who specialised in mimicking Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inscriptions, but was exposed as a fraud and shunned by many in the rare books community after receiving a series of menacing letters in Henry James’s handwriting. Now, as he tries to rebuild his life and forge a better future with Meghan, a spectre from his past returns. Threatening letters penned in the handwriting of long-dead authors once again start showing up after Adam’s death. The anonymous correspondent claims to have disturbing information about the murder, and threatens dire consequences if his demands aren’t met. As the web of extortion is spun, it soon becomes abundantly clear that his nemesis will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
The protagonist’s shifty character is intriguing (albeit not particularly likable), despite the fact that from the very get-go, it is fairly obvious that his account isn’t necessarily reliable. But shady and strangely elusive as he may be, he is our only source of information. We have nothing to go by but his words, and we spend much of the book wondering how accurate his telling of the tale is. Is someone who describes history as “subjective”, “alterable”, and “little more than modelling clay in a very warm room” worthy of our trust?
His flawed personality does, however, help create a captivating setup. His past proclivities and his association with the literary sphere give us a chance to discover the oddly fascinating world of forgery, which serves as a terrific setting for a literary mystery. The thoughts of an unrepentant forger, who sees his work as art, offer a unique peek at the complex world of rare books and manuscripts as well as the sinister underworld of forgery, a universe most of us have probably never thought of or know much about.
But even though the narrator and his world are interesting, the mystery he’s trying to spin, sadly, isn’t. After a promising start, the tale slows down and the action stalls. Character development continues without much plot development, and the novel turns into a detailed character portrait instead of a riveting, eventful murder mystery. The proceedings end up focusing on the clash between “two forgers interested in the same authors, furtively competing in the same small market, and forced by specialisation to share some of the same contacts”, putting the murder in the background for much of the novel, and then wrapping up the mystery in the last 10 pages, more as an obligatory afterthought than a satisfying conclusion, in thoroughly underwhelming fashion.
It also gets a bit frustrating that we are never sure how much of what we are being told is true. Seemingly honest one moment and duplicitous the next, the protagonist lies to and deceives Meghan, but he is only “withholding certain things that would hurt her or cause her undue worry,” he assures. Instead, his actions and justifications leave us wondering if he is simply doing everything to shield the woman he genuinely seems to love or if he has something to hide. After a while, this constant unreliability gets tiring.
The prose has impressive moments of flair, and Morrow’s passion for literature shines through in the details, but the overall execution of the novel is decidedly uneven. The Forgers will charm bibliophiles, and readers are more likely to enjoy the book if they don’t expect it to operate as a detective novel and see it as a character study instead of a mystery thriller. After a riveting beginning The Forgers quickly runs out of steam, and even though it is a short, quick read, the novel still leaves you feeling you’ve spent more time than necessary with the main protagonist. There are some interesting thoughts in the book, but the novelist could have spun a better tale.
The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic.
By Bradford Morrow