Quick - which book comes to mind when I say the following: Church conspiracy, murder, and the life of an enigmatic historical figure shrouded in mystery? You would probably shout out The DaVinci Code! and then I would add: this book is nonfiction. Don’t shout out The DaVinci Code again. Intrigued? So was I when I picked up The Poet and the Murderer, a neat and tidy account of the greatest forger in history: Mark Hofmann - a man who singlehandedly tried to bring down the Church of Mormon and Sotheby’s Auction House and ruin the reputation of renowned historical authenticators.
I had never heard of Hofmann until I read Worrall’s book. Indeed, I knew very little about Emily Dickinson, let alone the Mormon religion, aside from the fact that they make lovely television commercials. Suffice it to say that Worrall gives such a thorough account of both these cultural giants that to say he opened my eyes would be an understatement.
I will try and sum up this sweet little book thus: it is three biographies intricately woven into one fluid and fast-paced story. Mark Hofmann, Emily Dickinson, and the founder of the Mormon faith, Joseph Smith, are the central characters, if you will. It is evident that Worrall has a talent for research and spinning seemingly unrelated details into a delicious tale of scandal. To be able to explain the science of graphology, handwriting analysis, and the mystical beginnings of the fastest-growing religion on earth is no small feat. And yet Worrall succeeds on all counts. Not once while reading this book was I bored; in fact, when I had finished the last pages, I wanted more!
In a nutshell, Hofmann was brought up in a strict Mormon household and despised the Church for its hypocrisy. This young hate-filled man had passion for literature and the written word. He developed a taste for buying and selling coins and historical documents. What caused him to pursue a life of forging the very things he cherished? Hofmann had purchased an authentic item - from the Smithsonian, no less - and when he tried to sell it, he was rebuffed by a reputable dealer who pronounced his treasure a fake. The gauntlet had been thrown down, and Hormann made it his life’s mission to bring down the cultural (and religious) elite. Hofmann was not a man who disliked authority but rather one who disliked the snobbery often found in the rarified world of collectibles.
Hofmann was a confidence man par excellence; he believed that he sold people what they wanted and therefore no real crime had ever been committed. He created historical letters that savaged the Mormon Church, and he watched with glee as the members scrambled to buy his forgeries in order to preserve their power.
Would you believe I put off reading this book for nearly a year? Why? Come on - it’s about a poet, the Mormon Church and some dusty letters written over a century ago! I shamefully judged this book not by its cover but by its “blurbs” - those tidbits of information every book has scrawled across its jacket. Imagine what it would be like to combine Catch Me if You Can with The DaVinci Code? Worrall has, and I am grateful. Bravo, Simon Worrall! You may be saying to yourself “If this book is so great, why hasn’t Hollywood made this into a movie yet?” Hofmann was approached but he has refused to tell his story, he prefers to remain a mystery. You are probably also asking: “If Hofmann was so great a forger, why haven’t any of us heard of him?” Once caught, Hofmann accepted a plea thus avoiding a trial. Enigmatic, indeed.