Fake blood: What inspired a novel about a forged Dracula sequel?

A Talented Man draws on real-world fakery and our love of seeing experts being taken in

A poster for Tod Browning’s 1931 horror film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. Photograph: Movie Poster Image Art/Getty

A poster for Tod Browning’s 1931 horror film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. Photograph: Movie Poster Image Art/Getty

 

Lee Israel churned out fakes the way Mr Kipling produces French Fancies. A bestselling author whose career had bombed, her solution to being stuck for cash was to forge celebrity letters and sell them off as authentic memorabilia.

In her wonderfully snarky, seedy memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me? – you might remember Melissa McCarthy’s turn as Israel in the 2018 movie adaptation – she admits to generating more than 400 letters from Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway and others in just 18 months. “The forged letters were larky and fun and totally cool,” she later wrote, her trademark mix of ego and shamelessness intact despite getting caught and sentenced to six months’ house arrest and five years’ probation.

The Hitler Diaries is probably the best-known modern forgery scandal. In 1983 German publication Stern exclusively acquired 60 volumes of Hitler’s journals, at a cost of more than nine million deutschmarks. Unfortunately, every single one had been written by a petty crook called Konrad Kujau. Given that he had only just finished them, it’s surprising the ink was even dry.

A worker at Berlin auction house Jeschke, Greve and Hauff disposes of a copy of the faked Hitler Diaries by Konrad Kujau. Photograph: Michael Urban/DDP/AFP via Getty
A worker at Berlin auction house Jeschke, Greve and Hauff disposes of a copy of the faked Hitler Diaries by Konrad Kujau. Photograph: Michael Urban/DDP/AFP via Getty

Such audacious attempts to defraud are as widespread – arguably much more so – in the art world. Having managed to survive lawsuits involving Nazi-looted work by Matisse and El Greco, a forgery scandal in 2011 closed the doors of Knoedler and Company, one of New York’s oldest and most respectable art dealers. Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in the 1970s, said that during his tenure 40 per cent of the works the museum considered purchasing were either phoney or so over-restored as to be considered the equivalent of a fake.

There can be no more beguiling story than the making and unmasking of a top-class fake

Hoax, fraud, catfishing, forgery, the exhortation to fake-it-till-you-make-it … from the furore when hotshot young journalist Stephen Glass was caught inventing quotes and sources for his New Republic articles, or Oprah’s live-on-air confrontation of James Frey about the lies in his addiction recovery memoir, A Million Little Pieces, (“I was defending every single viewer who had bought that book,” she said afterwards), there can be no more beguiling story than the making and unmasking of a top-class fake.

Podcasts are in on the act too: recent BBC hits include the digital Ponzi scheme series The Missing Cryptoqueen, and Fake Heiress, about a Russian fraudster who conned New York high society, banks and hotels.

Stoker swindle

When I began A Talented Man, a psychological suspense novel about a disillusioned writer who forges a previously unknown sequel to Dracula, I discovered that Bram Stoker published a book of essays called Famous Impostors in 1910. His classifications included “Pretenders”, “Practitioners of Magic”, “Witchcraft and Clairvoyance”, “Women as Men” and my favourite, the giddy catch-all “Hoaxes, etc”. In the introduction he noted, “Impostors in one shape or another are likely to flourish as long as human nature remains what it is, and society shows itself ready to be gulled.”

Famous Impostors by Bram Stoker
Famous Impostors by Bram Stoker

And, boy, are we gulled. But what is the fascination with watching others being taken in? Is there more to it than an amateur’s enjoyment when a supposed expert is publicly – and often humiliatingly – duped? When the rich are conned out of their riches? Originality is hardly new, after all, nor always worth defending. Historically, storytelling is founded on repetition and adaptation; a necessary function of folklore in oral traditions was to enforce social mores and codes of behaviour. “Substantially all ideas are second-hand,” Mark Twain wrote to Helen Keller … after she had been accused of plagiarism.

If there weren’t any experts, would there be any fakes? Perhaps authenticity depends on the existence of forgery and vice versa. In A Talented Man, forger Ellis Spender explains to his sceptical accomplice that while his Dracula sequel The Un-Dead Count may be forged, it is a “genuine fake”. He doesn’t consider his writing to be a clever assimilation of Stoker’s style, but rather as the reanimation of a dead man’s imagination: forgery as a chain, not an isolated act. Ellis does everything he can to make his sequel real, to soak his story in so much authenticity that it takes on the properties of every novel published by Stoker, as testamentary to his existence as a diary. To Ellis, that alone makes The Un-Dead Count a more honest novel than writing an homage to Stoker’s style and publishing it under his own name.

Constant recycling

Language is a constant recycling of words already stale from the mouth and hand of another. A Talented Man becomes a forgery-within-a-forgery-story, because it contains passages from The Un-Dead Count, written by Ellis (aka, me). On the basis that his book picks up the threads a generation later, Ellis retains part of Dracula’s structure, and his characters are the children of the original cast. Dracula is the tale of the making of a tale, and as well as its varied narrators, it incorporates many different elements: newspaper reports, journal notes, diary entries, a ship’s log, telegrams. Such broad source material was the perfect foundation for writing a “sequel” set a generation later.

Without the soft drip of discoveries of previously unknown genuine texts or misattributed paintings, there would be no imperative to search for lost treasures

A Talented Man is set in 1938, when the whereabouts of the original manuscript of Dracula was unknown (not that anyone seems to have been looking – “whereabouts unbothered about” is probably closer). In the 1980s it was discovered inexplicably tucked away in a barn in Pennsylvania, the title page displaying Stoker’s original choice of The Un-dead. He changed the title to Dracula just before it went to print.

The forgery industry is reliant on such finds. Without the soft drip of discoveries of previously unknown genuine texts or misattributed paintings (such as the two new Rembrandts discovered by Dutch art dealer Jan Six in just four years), there would be no imperative to search for lost treasures.

Between 1986 and 1994 British painter John Myatt passed off 200 of his own paintings as original surrealist, impressionist and cubist art. His part-accomplice, part-handler, the self-styled “professor” John Drewe, was an expert in creating false provenances. However, Drewe received a six-year sentence, while Myatt spent just a couple of months at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

Family portrait

In his book Systems of Art, Francis Halsall quotes Det Sgt Jonathan Searle of the Organised Crime Squad as saying, “the world will be a much safer place with Drewe in jail”, adding, “anything he has touched becomes suspect … He has rewritten art history.” Myatt’s paintings, while technically accomplished, were made using inferior and often anomalous materials, to such an extent that it’s surprising he got away with it, even for a short time. Both men profited financially, yet Drewe’s longer prison sentence suggests Myatt’s creation of the fakes was considered a lesser crime than Drewe’s playing the art-world provenance and distribution systems to authenticate them. Myatt took up his brush again as soon as he left prison. One of his first paintings was a family portrait, commissioned by the officer who arrested him.

In the case of financial fraud particularly, these aren’t victimless crimes, such as the supposed “revolution” exposed by The Missing Cryptoqueen, which left countless investors broke and despairing. Lee Israel’s forgeries cost both collectors and shops, yet despite her admission that during her forging years she carried around “a sack of worry”, she decided that no real harm had been done: “The real letters of the drunken American writers were so far as I know all recovered and returned safely to their archival homes.”

Melissa McCarthy as literary forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy as literary forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Israel had no time for the belief that authenticity should be worshipped as a virtue of itself, or that it could function as a synonym for taste. In fact, her memoir remains cheerily braggy and unrepentant to the last, as she adds, “I still consider the letters to be my best work”.

A Talented Man (Hachette) is a psychological suspense about literary forgery and the lost sequel to Dracula available now on Amazon. Read an excerpt at henriettamckervey.com

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