The Underwear Made Him Do It

The Poet and the Murderer is really three books in one. Make that three articles bolted into one not entirely coherent book. Only one of these articles is successful, in my opinion, and the union of the three is a bit of a mess.

The first article is about a library curator who makes the acquisition of a lifetime only to quickly develop concerns that this prize is actually a forgery. The second article is about Mark Hofman, forger/murderer/hypnotist and inspiration for multiple books. The third article is about Emily Dickenson, the forged poet. The chapters on the Dickenson forgery and the byzantine world of dealers and auction houses were interesting enough.

Worrall's prose would benefit from a greater familiarity with the dictionary, and a cold shower, replete as it is with unfortunate metaphors and sloppy word choices. Like what, you ask? The curator "ransacked Amherst's libraries" for info about Hofman. Really? He trashed the place? Or did he just look through the card catalog? Instances of Worrall misusing a word or phrase abound. Then there's nomination for dumbest metaphor: "cleanliness and work, the twin carburetors of the German soul." Take a moment with that line. Carburetors blend air and fuel. The idea seems to be that the soul is an engine but why does it need two carburetors? Is Worrall clear on what a carburetor is?

The second section, the adventures of Mark Hofman, is quite lame. Three books (Salamander, Victims and A Gathering of Saints) have already been written about the Hofman case; all of them good. So any new book needs to add something new to the conversation. Unfortunately what Worrall adds is more bad prose and pointless slams at the Mormon Church.

Anyone who has read Under the Banner of Heaven knows it is possible to write a clear-eyed, historically accurate, questioning account involving the Mormon Church without mocking its believers. Worrell goes another route, invoking George Orwell, Communist China and The Lord of the Rings to describe the religion. Why bother to understand the role the religion plays in the lives of its believers when you can just mock the belief? So many of Worrall's sweeping assertions don't pass the laugh test: "Not even the Pope enjoys the absolute power, and authority, invested in the head of the Mormon Church." Really? He's got his own Swiss Guard and he's a head of state?

Worrall makes the case that the "hypocrisy" Hofman saw in the Mormon Church made him try to destroy it from within. You know you're in special territory when the author summons up more venom for the traditional Mormon "garment" (basically, underwear) than for a murderer. People leave the Mormon Church every day so I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that the underwear can be removed if one so chooses. There are also people who manage to disagree with the Mormon Church and its teachings without throwing bombs.

By the time the "Poet" section rolled around I was hoping for a more balanced approach. Fat chance. Lo and behold, Emily lived in an oppressive religious society, too, just like Mark! I was half expecting Worrall to reveal that Mark Hofman was trying to take down the corrupt Dickenson industry by forging her poems, striking a blow at spiritually-certain Emily fans by making it appear she was agnostic. Alas, no, there's nothing that clear or declarative on offer. It all ends up with Worrall happening to be at the right place and time to find out that Sotheby's was a pack of lying liars who lied about the provenance of the forged Dickenson poem that spawned this dreary book.

This is the second edition of this book and Worrall assures us that he trimmed down several chapters. The prospect that there was once additional padding in this already well-padded book is unpleasant indeed. Not recommended unless you need ink recipes.

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