Pradeep Sebastian

Endpaper: Killing words

Author Bradford Morrow. Photo: Jessamine Chan.   | Photo Credit: Jessamine Chan

The Forgers is the first full throttle biblio-mystery to come along since John Dunning stopped writing his bestselling Cliff Janeway series decades ago. We’ve been treated to a lot of biblio fiction since Dunning — from The Shadow of the Wind to The Book of Air and Shadows to The Bookman’s Tale — but few were set in the world Dunning made so seductive: the world of contemporary rare book dealers, antiquarian book fairs and modern first editions. Bradford Morrow, the author of The Forgers, knows this world well having been a book dealer in modern firsts. Dunning was clever, witty and knowledgeable but his hardboiled prose grated at times, while Morrow writes lyrically and deftly about rare book dealing and literary forgery but, perhaps, not as cunningly.

“They never found his hands” is its shivery opening line over which you chuckle even as it sends down a frisson because you already know this biblio-mystery is about forgers and their gifted hands. “I thought to myself,” Morrow said in an interview to Karen Russell, “what would a ruthless forger most want to deprive a rival of having? Pens, nibs, inks, antique papers, subterranean connections in the rare book world? No, his hands, of course. So it began with that single image and all the narrative possibilities and challenges it offered. The rare book community, a collective of brilliant eccentrics among whom murderers don’t generally mingle, is one I have been a part of for my whole adult life — first as a dealer, later as a collector — so most of my research was already done by the time I wrote that sentence and those that came after.”

The murdered book collector with the severed hands, Adam Diehl, was possibly a forger as well. He is found dead in his library with many of his most valued books, high spots in modern firsts, signed and inscribed copies, and literary manuscripts strewn all over the floor and badly vandalised. The police fail to solve the murder but the reclusive collector’s sister has a lover, only called Will, who is compelled to chase after the mystery when he begins to receive threatening notes in the handwriting of long-dead authors like Conan Doyle.

Will, the narrator and protagonist, was once a forger . He got caught, served a light sentence and now works in an auction house as an expert cataloguer. Occasionally his old skills are used to identify forgeries in the market. He writes of how forging something in the hand of a favourite author moves him deeply and his childhood love for letterforms, his passion for the chancery script and his calligraphic skills. “Each letter required the right presence and pressure, the tender weight of ink, old sepia, faded black on my small canvas...the choreographic shape and spirit of the comma...The precision of a period...Single quotes like black crescent moons in a parchment sky.”

At least a couple of scenes in the book reference the New York Antiquarian Book Fair (though Morrow refers to the fair only as the show at the Park Avenue Armory) and I can’t recall another contemporary biblio-mystery that features the NY Antiquarian Book Fair. By featuring fictional book-dealer characters that trade and show and sell here, The Forgers gives you a peek into high- end rare book dealing specialised in buying up entire private collections of all kinds of literary material, from author letters to inscribed copies to association copies. (Morrow acknowledges Tom Congalton, James Jaffe and Nick Basbanes).

The Forgers nicely satisfies our craving for an authentic, engaging biblio-mystery when it travels “the precincts of bibliographic connoisseurship”, but stumbles in its denouement: surprising as it is, the identity of the killer feels unconvincing, knowing what you know of this character. But perhaps that has been the point of the novel all along: that a person’s capability for treachery and deception can run so deep and fine, it can, like an artful forgery, look reassuringly like the real thing.

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2021 9:25:41 AM |

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