In his latest novel, Bradford Morrow exposes the dark side of the rare-book world, where literary forgers create fake letters, signatures and manuscripts by famous authors. His richly detailed mystery opens with a grisly scene: A reclusive book collector is found in his studio with his head bashed in and his hands severed. Morrow, a professor of literature at Bard College, explains why he was drawn to this shadowy subject.
The Forgers is a novel I have been unintentionally researching my entire adult life. How so? In my 20s I worked in both used and rare bookshops, even opened my own shop for a time, and have been a book collector ever since I sold off most of my inventory to launch the literary journal Conjunctions. My life has been thoroughly steeped in books. Over the years I’ve done almost everything one can do with a book, having spent time as a tradesman, binder, editor, translator, bibliographer, teacher, writer and voracious reader of books. The world in which The Forgers is set, then—a world of both secondhand bookshops and high-end antiquarian booksellers who deal in valuable first editions—is one I know well. Indeed, writing The Forgers propelled me back to every book fair I’ve ever attended over the years, whether it was in rural New Jersey, at a fairgrounds in California or the annual Antiquarian Booksellers Association fair at the Armory on Park Avenue.
This is not to suggest, however, that I have ever been a literary forger. Far from it. To be honest, I don’t have the strangely impressive array of skills necessary to the task. A master forger must, after all, excel as a calligrapher, a chemist and a con-man connoisseur. Forgers must have a deep, even scholarly, understanding of the author whose handwriting is to be mimicked if they are going to achieve the kind of perfection needed to get their handiwork past eagle-eyed experts. While I spent many months inside the head of my narrator—himself a master forger with a particular taste for manufacturing inscriptions, letters and manuscripts by Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James and W.B. Yeats, and for all his faults a protagonist for whom I have a lot of affection—I don’t find his passion for messing with history to be an altogether admirable one.
And yet literary forgers from past eras have always fascinated me, such as master deceivers William Ireland, Thomas Chatterton and Thomas J. Wise, each of whom has an interesting personal backstory. All were wildly talented, imaginative and flawed. Ireland’s father, for instance, was a Shakespeare scholar and collector, and given there are precious few verified Shakespeare autographs extant, young Will decided to create some others that would enhance his father’s collection. Emboldened, he even penned some “undiscovered” Shakespeare manuscripts and letters to Anne Hathaway and Queen Elizabeth, among others. His high-wire ruse worked nicely for quite a while, although those who venerated authenticity eventually, as they are wont to do, raised concerns. It is his and others’ gnarly paths that my narrator, also named Will, has chosen to follow.
Why forgery? And why a murder mystery in which forgery is the prime focus? At lunch last year in New York, my editor, Otto Penzler, wondered if I would write a short story for a series he publishes at his wonderful Mysterious Bookshop, called Bibliomysteries. I asked him precisely how he defined bibliomystery and he said, simply, it’s a work of fiction in which books are central and a murder takes place. Although I have long been considered a so-called “literary writer,” in recent years I’ve become deeply interested in genre fiction, a neighborhood in the city of literature that is inspiring, rigorous in its architectures and terribly inviting. In part because I consider the best genre fiction, from crime to sci-fi, horror to fantasy, to be every bit as literary as literary fiction, I said yes. I settled on forgery as my theme because I felt the travesties of other misfits—like book thieves, let’s say—offered me a bit less to explore, certainly in terms of technical sophistication.
As I began sketching ideas, writing some pages in search of the right voice, I realized that my forgers would be functioning in the netherlands of the community I knew so well. With that realization, I felt immediately at home.
The next question to address was, what is the most serious deprivation a forger could suffer? Of course he needs his vintage pens and papers, his custom-mixed inks, first editions in which to create inscriptions from long-dead authors, perhaps to other long-dead authors or hitherto unsuspected lovers. Take those away, you interfere with his illicit, to him beautiful, art. But to take away his hands? You terminate it forever. So when I settled on my first line—“They never found his hands”—I was fully underway.
The thing about writing The Forgers is that the further I got into it, the more I understood I needed a larger canvas than that of a short story to explore the lives of these dark, compelling people. That short story commission turned within a matter of months into a novel, and the novel eventually explored far more than murder and rare books. Indeed, much of The Forgers is a love story complicated by death and deception, but also suffused with bibliophilia, a shared love of books. It’s a novel about secrecy, about faith and the fragile nature of redemption. It is also about the very nature of truth, the curious plasticity of reality and how history itself may be radically altered with the stroke of a pen.