Forgery in its many forms is a big business. And it’s easy to see why. A forged signature can give one access to all sorts of things, including a lot of money. We’ve all read of stories where a supposed masterwork of art sold for a lot of money, only to be identified as a forgery later. And forged documents, such as passports and driving licenses, can, of course, be very valuable. It can be hard to prove a forgery, too. Even handwriting experts don’t always agree on whether a particular sample is really a given person’s writing. And art experts don’t always agree on whether a given piece of art is or is not genuine.
All of this is, as you know, illegal. So, it’s also fairly risky. It’s also no surprise at all that we see forgery in crime fiction as much as we do. There’s often a lot at stake, and the fact of forgery can add a plot twist, some tension, or even character development to a crime novel.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk, we are introduced to Hall Pycroft. He’s recently been made redundant and was in search of a new position. He was offered a good position with another stockbroking firm; in fact, he was at the point of starting. But then, he was approached by a man named Arthur Pinner, who offered him a very well-paid job with a new company he was starting. Pycroft is concerned with some of the aspects of the job interview, and with the fact the he’s been asked not to let the other stockbroking firm know he won’t be starting there. So, he visits Sherlock Holmes to ask for his help. Holmes takes the case, and he and Watson travel with Pycroft to visit Pinner. It’s not long before Holmes discovers that Pycroft was very nearly taken advantage of, and that forgery is involved.
In Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios/A Coffin For Dimitrios, mystery novelist Charles Latimer learns of a legendary criminal named Dimitrious Makropoulos. He’s apparently been involved in several crimes, including murder and attempted murder. As Latimer learns, Makropoulos’ body has recently been pulled from the Bosporus and is now in the local mortuary. Latimer gets the chance to view the body, and as he does so, he decides to learn more about this man. His plan is to trace Makrapoulos’ life and find out how and why he did what he did. So, Latimer sets out on what proves to be a very dangerous journey. In the process, he meets several ruthless people who don’t want him to find the answers he seeks. He also runs into a problem as he searches for Makropoulos’ ‘footsteps.’ It seems that Makrapoulos was an expert at getting and using forged passports and other identity documents. So, it’s not always easy to follow his trail. Still, Latimer persists, and we eventually learn the truth about Makrapoulos’ life. Among other things, this novel offers a look at how forged paperwork can get a person from one place to another. It’s not as easy to do now as it was in 1939, when this novel was published, but it does happen.
Several of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories include forged passports, wills, or other important documents. In the interest of not giving away spoilers, I’ll just mention one: Hallowe’en Party. In that novel, Joyce Reynolds is murdered at a Hallowe’en party. Just hours earlier, she bragged about having seen a murder, so it doesn’t take much detection to guess that Joyce was killed to prevent her saying anything more about that murder. Detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is in the area, staying with a friend. She’s terribly upset about Joyce’s murder, and asks Hercule Poirot to find out who is responsible. He starts by accepting the fact that Joyce might have seen a murder and tries to find out which murder she would have seen. It turns out the history of the town plays a major role in this case. So does a case of forgery.
Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground sees her anti-hero, Tom Ripley, settled in a country home in France, with his wife, Heloise. He and his friends, Jeff Constant, Ed Banbury and Bernard Tufts, manage a very successful ‘enterprise.’ They’ve convinced a Bond Street gallery, the Buckmaster Gallery, to handle the work of Philip Derwatt. The painter himself was relatively unknown during his life and died a few years ago. But his work lives on through forgery. Tufts does the actual painting, and the others create flyers and other material to keep the work in the public eye. All goes very well until an American art enthusiast named Thomas Murchison visits the Buckmaster, wanting to see Derwatt’s work. He notices a few subtle but real differences between genuine Derwatt’s he’s seen, and the work the Buckmaster carries. The forgery team finds this out, and they decide that Ripley will go to London, pretend to be Derwatt, and convince Murchison that all of the work is genuine. The ruse doesn’t end up being successful, and now, Ripley has a major problem on his hand. He solves the ‘Murchison problem’ in his own way, only to find he has even bigger problems…
And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Doors Open. In it, wealthy Mike Mackenzie devises a scheme with his friend, Allan Cruikshank, a local gangster called Chib Calloway, and art professor Robert Gissing. The plan is to rob the Scottish National Gallery of some of its masterpieces and replace them with forgeries created by one of Gissing’s students. The group chooses the gallery’s Doors Open day, since the warehouse and other private areas will be open to the public. The theft is carefully planned, and actually goes off on schedule. But the group soon finds out that just stealing valuable artwork is only the beginning of actually benefitting from it…
There are many other books and stories that focus on forgery. It makes sense, too, considering how lucrative it can be, and how much at stake there sometimes is. Forgeries can add tension and suspense to a plot, and sometimes a layer of character development. Which examples have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Dashboard Confessional.