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In The World Of Rare Books, This Mystery Goes Off-Script

Brief as his new novel may be, Bradford Morrow has no problems with taking his time. The fine mists of a seaside vista, the loops and lines of a writer's careful lettering, even the meals his characters eat (truly, just about every single one): None of it escapes the lingering eye of the narrator behind The Forgers. Each detail gets its due — except, of course, the ones he doesn't want you to see.

Among those details, by the way, is the name of the narrator himself. But for one slip, the man chooses never to reveal it — "Shadow men never like being called by name," he explains — so I'll respect the character's wishes and refrain from using his name myself.

But his reluctance indicates just whose hands move this murder mystery forward. The man's a literary forger, a faker of inscriptions and a master of authors' handwriting, selling priceless books made all the more priceless by his untimely additions. At least, he was once — but a run-in with the law and the love of a good woman named Meghan helped set him straight. Despite his legal redemption, though, he remains proud of his hands. "Agile, knowing, sure, deft, powerfully subtle," he says of them, never one to be too humble

All the more a shame, then, what happens to Meghan's brother, Adam: As the novel starts, we discover him near death after a home invasion. "They never found his hands," the narrator observes matter-of-factly in the opening line. Adam's mutilation, and his death mere days later, marks the centerpiece to a methodical plot that luxuriates just as much as it twists.

The pace would be frustrating, were it not for the fact that Morrow displays such a capable hand himself. Just as the mystery narrator adores the shapes of letters on the page, Morrow himself seems to relish the links between the words they compose. Long meditations on the intricacies of script, on the modest intrigues of the rare book world or even on the pubs of small-town Ireland could easily have lagged. Instead, they read so elegantly I sometimes found myself regretting the moments he'd eventually move on.

Questions of lineage pervade the book: The narrator's parents no longer live; neither do those of Meghan and her brother. Even the rare books they deal in have clouded backstories. It's ironic, then, that Morrow's own style doesn't suffer from the same doubtful parentage. In its simmering paranoia and its patient, unraveling mystery, The Forgers plays much like the lovechild of Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, whose name — and whose immortal Sherlock Holmes — gets invoked repeatedly throughout.

It's not a perfect fusion, though. Whatever the anxieties those two authors inflicted, they often also offered a bedrock comfort: the belief in a real truth, however twisted or difficult to discern it might turn out to be. Not so with Morrow's narrator.

"The 'real' never did much for me, I must admit," he says, dismissing it as a "knotty word" at best. At worst, it deserves the same penalty he metes out to the word permanent: "I incarcerate the word permanent within quotes because I think it is one of the most fraudulent words in the English language."

In other words: In a world in which forgeries that last long enough can gain their own authenticity, who's to say what's true and what isn't? It's a deeply postmodern predicament, and one that complicates what might otherwise have been a mundane, if movingly rendered, murder mystery.

Instead, each detail asks as much as it answers. Bewildering, sure, but also delightful to read — so much so that even the sincerest statements beg to be unpacked. So much so that, despite book's pace and patience, it's tough to fight the urge to return to the start when, deep in the novel, Morrow has the audacity to write: "I'm not making any of this up."

Colin Dwyer is a contributor to NPR.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.