From its provocative opening line — “They never found his hands” — Bradford Morrow’s latest novel takes on a knowing, noirish tone, like a crime movie by the Coen brothers. The hands in question belong to Adam Diehl, a reclusive book collector who lived on the shore at Montauk, the eastern tip of Long Island. Diehl would seem to be a strange target for such a violent attack, but we soon learn he was also a forger.
The tabloids call the crime “the Manuscript Murder,” but overall don’t pay much attention to the case. Our narrator pays attention much longer, because he is also a book man, and he is dating Diehl’s sister, who runs a bookshop. He’s also a forger, and he becomes increasingly enmeshed in unraveling the crime, even after the police have given up.
The pleasure of reading The Forgers comes not only from trying to figure out what happened to Diehl but also in deciding, chapter by chapter, how much trust to grant the narrator, who is our only source.
He shares intimacies about his thinking and details of his relationship, but he is a strangely elusive. We hear his name only once — Will — halfway through the book, and that instance even startles him: “Shadow men never like being called by name, I guess one could say, though now that I was out of the shadows, why shouldn’t I shout my name from the mountaintops. Habit, caution, self-disgust?”
When he thinks about his forgeries, which went beyond signatures to entire documents, Will has to “admit to myself, and myself only, that somewhere along the line I had evolved a deluded, fanciful and finally illicit conceit that my work did benefit others by bringing the beauty of previously unwritten words and ideas into the world.”
A professor of literature at Bard College, Morrow is also a poet and has edited literary anthologies about death and the “new Gothic.” The Forgers is Morrow’s seventh novel, and his affinity for old-fashioned literary dread comes through in language more baroque than usually seen in crime fiction.
Adam introduces his sister to Will: “Despite the unvarnished chill that emanated from the wary brother in even those initial minutes of my acquaintance with his sister — he stood there like the proverbial third wheel, a flat tire of a man — Meghan and I felt we had known each other our entire lives, an impression we confessed on that first drink date several days later.”
But the old-fashioned tone works, especially since our narrator repeatedly tells us about his obsession with Arthur Conan Doyle since boyhood. His exposure as a forger comes after he starts receiving threatening letters, unnervingly “penned in Henry James’ distinctive flowing hand on what appeared to be authentic Lamb House stationery with its handsome red-raised type.”
More threatening letters appear after Diehl’s death — this time in Conan Doyle’s hand — and Will follows up the connection with Adam’s murder even as he tries to protect his new, purportedly forgery-free life with Meghan.
We learn who is writing these mysterious letters and who killed Adam by chopping off his hands, those instruments of forgery. The unsettling questions that remain concern the storyteller and our intimate relationship with him.
As he says when contemplating how he can gin up authenticating documents for a forgery if necessary: “History is subjective. History is alterable. History is, finally, little more than modeling clay in a very warm room.”
Bradford Morrow appears at 12:30 p.m. Nov. 22 in Room 8301 of Miami Dade College for Miami Book Fair International.