Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Poet and the Murderer

Simon Worral is clearly an accomplished writer and his book, The Poet and the Murderer, demonstrates that skill. It’s a fascinating story about a forger who earns a good living faking historical documents, mainly those that could be important to the Mormon Church. The reader learns a great deal about how document forgery is accomplished, about how little concern the nation’s major auction houses demonstrate for the validity of what they put on the block, and about the roots of Mormonism.

The only problem with the book is that the story wanders around in interesting but not necessarily riveting detail --- detail that sometimes loses sight of the story line. What was auctioned off as a poem of Emily Dickinson frames the story in an opening that zeros in on the purchaser, Daniel Lombardo, then the curator of special collections for the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts, the center of Dickinson lore.

The character who turns out to be a forger and murderer, Mark Hoffman, fails to come alive in the sense one can identify with him, or pity him or even be truly appalled by him. Raised a Mormon and obsessed by the church, he is portrayed as mechanical man. If his crime had been foreshadowed in greater detail, with a more sympathetic portrayal of the victims, I think the story would have held more of my attention.

But it is wrong to be too critical of Worral’s work, which is an easy read. I just wanted more. That is not a bad way to leave a reader, but it does seem that more might have been available to Worral, more of what I wanted to know about Lombardo as well as Hoffman’s victims. Finally I’d like to have footnotes on Worral’s detailed analysis of the early years of Mormonism, or at least some citations of his secondary sources, so I could easily follow up where my interest was stimulated by this book.

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