Book review: The Book Forger, by Joseph Hone

For all the forensics and meticulous detail, this account of the crimes of book forger Thomas James Wise, and the amateur detectives who uncovered them, is curiously moving, writes Stuart Kelly

Whether you find this book as tremendous as I did rather depends on your reaction to a chapter entitled “The Kernless f and the Curious ?”; or perhaps whether you have a penchant for the Golden Age of crime fiction. It might tempt those less enamoured of bibliographical details to know that the crime is staggeringly modern, involving fraud, vanity, luxury, technological expertise and an eccentric cast. It is not, however, a whodunnit. In 1934, two young and very different booksellers uncovered a dastardly forgery operation. The perpetrator was “a self-made man who had, by the dawn of the twentieth century, assembled what was widely regarded as the greatest private library in the English-speaking world”; estimated, at his death, to be worth the equivalent of £10 million. Many ended up in the British Library. On page two, we learn that this bookish Moriarty was Thomas James Wise, “perhaps the greatest collector in the world. He was a pugnacious burster of bubbles, a pioneer of modern firsts, a scourge of fools and double-dealers, a figure of unquestioned and unquestionable authority. He was also a liar, a thief, and a forger”. The questions that propel this book are “how?” and more significantly, “why?”

Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock has the line “What mighty contents rise from trivial things?”, and to some minds, Wise’s inventions might seem like trivia. Wise, who did have a “nose” for books, began by creating facsimile editions of rare books, boasting that his reproductions of titles by Shelley had featured every “printer’s error, dropped letter, or other peculiarity of the original”. If one couldn’t have an actual first edition, Wise’s copies were the next best thing. They were given as gifts in literary societies, some even credited as being “PRINTED FOR PRIVATE CIRCULATION”.

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One of the fascinating aspects of this book is the complicated nature of the encroaching criminality. At first it seems as if a “just like” slipped into an “actually is”. But how convincing this is depends on a huge amount of genuine knowledge. Wise’s case – though it is more complicated in interesting ways – is similar to that of John Payne Collier at the beginning of the 19th century. His forgeries were non-existent proofs for his own theories, and often were accompanied by a paper-chain of forgeries claiming to show the provenance of the forgery was genuine. Wise, for example, created a book, “SONNETS. By E. B. B.”, dated 1847 and supposedly printed in, perhaps pun intended, Reading. The text was that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, included in the 1850 second edition of her Poems. A fanciful tale of a dozen copies circulated solely among friends was concocted (the book even had “not for publication” on it) and Wise drip-fed copies to eager collectors from his stash of over 30.

The heroes of the story conform to the classic thriller odd-couple double-act. Henry Pollard was a bohemian at Jesus College, Oxford, who fell into bookselling almost by accident. He challenged a fellow student to a duel with water-pistols, became interested in left wing politics and left with a third class degree and an impressive library, He was a member of the “Biblio Boys”, who met at Elkin Matthews’ booksellers, along with John Carter, a suave and well-heeled young man with a double first from King’s College, Cambridge. One of them worked for MI5. Wise, older and more established, sometimes attended these soirées. He had not been to university, and there is an aftertaste of “getting one over on them” about his relationship with all these literary societies and clubs.

In one of those coincidences that seem impossible to be fiction, next door to Birrell and Garnett, where Pollard worked, was the meeting place of the “Detection Club”, whose members included GK Chesterton, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. Their oath is worth quoting in full: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or Act of God?” Indeed Sayers herself said of Carter and Pollard’s published Enquiry into the affair, in her Sunday Times review, “connoisseurs of the detective method will find it more fascinating than any fiction”. Their investigations took in hunting out copies, comparing texts, chemical testing and dating of paper samples (which involved the assistance of the plucky librarian Flora Livingston, who razored out a sample from the Harvard copy of “Sonnets” – “It will never show, and if it does no one will know the who or they why”).

For all the thrills and shenanigans, the forensics and meticulous detail, this is a curiously moving book. Was it vanity, venality or vengeance that motivated Wise? Hone’s conclusion is we can never conclude, though he does seem unrepentant. Wise’s bookplates, self-designed, have some doggerel that reads “Books bring me friends”, though tolerated acquaintances and dupes might be more apt. Holbrook Jackson perhaps gets closest, describing bibliomaniacs as “perverts”. The Golden Age of book-sleuthing is most likely gone, alas. Searching for “bibliography” on an online site, it helpfully recommended sponsored links to “100 Uplifting Stories for Seniors”, “Desperately Seeking Sex and Sobriety” and two titles in the “Transplant Lives” series. No doubt that page will no longer exist if I search for it again.

The Book Forger, by Joseph Hone, Chatto & Windus, £18.99