Biblio-Mysteries: The Forgers & First Impressions
Blame Johnny Depp. Or maybe Arturo Perez-Reverte, author of the 1993 novel The Club Dumas, which was then adapted into the 1999 film The Ninth Gate, starring Depp as a shady rare book dealer. Either way, we seem to have accepted this idea that the rare book trade is a dark underworld, peopled with deceptive booksellers, maniacal collectors, and greedy forgers. Two new novels pull on this thread in different and engaging ways.
The Forgers by Bradford Morrow (Mysterious Press, $24) stuns from its first line, "They never found his hands." A reclusive Long Island collector named Adam Diehl has been murdered. His sister is justly horrified, and her boyfriend, Will, a bibliophile with a talent for literary forgery, avoids telling her some secrets he knew about Adam. But as they begin to move on with their lives, Will receives a series of threatening letters, written in the script of dead authors.
Morrow, formerly a rare book dealer and currently a collector of first editions and the author of seven previous novels, clearly knows his way around the subject and parlays that expertise into lovely lines about putting his pen nib to "antique leaf, its wire-and-chain lines singing like lyre strings beneath the flowing words." Roundly praised by all the pre-pub review magazines and a list of literary luminaries (Joyce Carol Oates, Karen Russell, Peter Straub...), Morrow offers a suspenseful plot that coexists with gritty characters and ominous imagery.
First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen by Charlie Lovett (Viking, $27.95) has a pretty neat premise: someone has stumbled upon the fact that Jane Austen may have stolen the idea for Pride & Prejudice from a tale shared with her by an elderly clergyman. Getting to the bottom of that mystery will involve murder, theft, deceit, assault, and desire. The dual narrative moves back and forth between a Hampshire village at the end of the 18th century, where Austen finds a literary mentor, and present-day London, where recent Oxford graduate Sophie Collingwood is trying to rebuild the library of her recently deceased and beloved uncle and choose between two romantic partners. That is, until she is strong-armed into locating a rare, possibly unique, volume that will discredit Austen.
Lovett is also a book collector and a former antiquarian bookseller (he was featured in our spring issue's 'How I Got Started' column), and this is his second novel, following his 2013 bestseller, The Bookman's Tale. First Impressions is nimble and entertaining. Austen fans will surely flock to it, as will bibliophilic and publishing history geeks who can't pass up a novel with characters that include an unknown 18th-century printer and a man who keeps his fabulous family library locked at all times.