Review: Memoirs of a Master Forger, by William Heaney


Gollancz, ISBN 978-0-575-08297-7

(Review first published on the ASIM website, September 2008)


William Heaney. Do not buy a book from this man. Unless it’s one he’s written himself.

Memoirs of a Master Forger is, as I read it, a bit of a misnomer. Heaney himself is the entrepreneur, the dealer in counterfeited literature; the forger is Stinx, one of Heaney’s (several) partners-in-crime. (One presumes that the persistent use of only the forger’s nickname is an attempt to avoid the incrimination of third parties, though given Heaney’s avoidance of an alias for himself I am left in some considerable doubt as to the wisdom of this course as an anti-litigation measure.) So in truth this book should be called something like Memoirs of a Dealer of Forged Books; but I suppose that wouldn’t have the same ring to it.

Whatever it’s called, Memoirs makes for interesting reading. This is an autobiography which reads remarkably like a novel, so much so to suggest that if Heaney were ever to get out of the dodgy-first-editions business he could make a pretty decent fiction writer.

And Heaney himself would make for a more than averagely interesting character. Living in London and currently employed in the youth sector of the social services industry, he moves in circles populated by Government ministers, charity workers, dossers, bad poets of several stripes, forgers, boutique wines, and demons. Particularly demons. Thing is, William Heaney regards himself as a bit of an expert on demons, reckons he can see them, and believes that there are a grand total of precisely one thousand, five hundred and sixty-seven of them. He even goes so far as to identify several of them during the course of Memoirs.(1)

Memoirs glosses over Heaney’s childhood as well as much of his subsequent career, instead focussing principally on two periods: the present day, during which Heaney’s book-faking activities and philanthropic tendencies have conspired to place him in no little jeopardy, and the latter portion of Heaney’s student years, twenty-odd years ago, wherein he first exercised his apparent affinity for the demonic. There are interesting and persistent connections established between this past and present: the demons, obviously; Heaney’s student lodge neighbour Fraser, who like Heaney himself discovered demons around that time, and currently considers himself an expert on the topic; and Mandy, Heaney’s girlfriend during the turbulent events of his student career. The passages dealing with Heaney’s eventual reconciliation with these ghosts from the past are among the book’s most moving episodes.

If this were a novel rather than a memoir (which, of course, it’s not), I’d be obliged to pass judgement on the plotting, the characterisation, and the book’s placement within genre. In a work of non-fiction, these considerations do not naturally apply, but many of the other concerns of a standard fiction review — comment on the clarity of the writing, the cohesiveness of the work, the overall quality — are still relevant. I’m happy to report favourably on each of these. And Heaney displays considerable craft as a writer (one presumes that if you’re sharp enough to make a living on the side from peddling ersatz rare books, and humanly decent enough to plough those ill-gotten gains into charity concerns, then you’re probably pretty clued-up generally), structuring the Memoirs in several ways as if it was actually a real novel. The pacing, the gradual unfolding of events, the building tension, the piecemeal introduction of other ‘characters’ such as the bad poet Ellis, the femme fatale Yasmin (if that is indeed her real name), the doomed ex-soldier Seamus, the charmingly-maligned TV chef Lucien who’s currently shacked up with Heaney’s ex-wife Fay — all up, as I’ve said already, you could assemble a novel from these ingredients, and it seems very much as though Heaney has in fact pretended to do this. It’s rather well done, for the most part.

If this were a novel, if this were a first novel, then it’d be rather bloody good.

All up, Memoirs is a fascinating read. It strives for humour, and pathos, and intelligent social comment — there’s a well-informed subsidiary thread regarding ‘Desert Storm’ and the human cost of needless war — and, to my mind, pretty much hits the spot each time.

And please, somebody tell this man to go ahead and write a novel.

I’d read it.

(1) There is, for example, a demon of footnotes.



(Review by Simon Petrie, 2009)


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