The Murderer Inside the Mirror”. Book 2 of the “Theatre of Thieves” mysteries

“Is this a forgery I see before me…?”

Forgery is a criminal act, but also a wide-ranging craft. It can include a musical score purporting to be a masterpiece from Mozart or a long-lost final fugue from Bach – any of the Bachs. It can encompass paintings, suitably be-smudged and be-cobwebbed to suggest they spent the last century stashed in the forgotten attic of one of the great artists of history – even though the truth is that they were created barely a month earlier.

Then there are fragmented bones that can be presented to the world of palaeoanthropology as proof of Charles Darwin’s missing link theory.  Piltdown Man was always a dubious claim, and even though it was entirely debunked in the 1950s it’s still intriguing to imagine that long-ago anthropologist earnestly assembling odds and ends of fossilised bones – a mandible here, an ulna there, muttering crossly because parts of a skull had been broken by workmen who thought they were simply digging up a gravel pit in an East Sussex hamlet.

The Strand magazine, December 1920.
Fairy Offering Posy of Harebells to Elsie

And not to be forgotten or overlooked is the story of the two young cousins in a West Yorkshire village who conjured up – and photographed – what were later proved to be cardboard cut-outs of ethereal beings. Whatever the truth, the photographs succeeded in convincing the erudite creator of Sherlock Holmes that the two girls had met and talked to winged gnomes and leaping fairies.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a prominent spiritualist, accepted the story, and his 1920 article for The Strand, which used the photographs, sold massively – although is reported to have caused a “combination of embarrassment and puzzlement”.

But perhaps above and beyond all of those are the conveniently-discovered, artistically-tattered folios allegedly disinterred from some forgotten country house library or dim bookshop.  Perhaps appearing to be a musty manuscript that might have been placed in a drawer by Charles Dickens in a moment of absent-mindedness, revealing what Edwin Drood’s mysterious fate really was…  Or scribbled stanzas suggesting that, before he died, Lord Byron allowed the scandalous Don Juan a few extra jaunts, and did not, as believed, abandon his creation in mid-episode, so to speak…

But surely the discovery that most people would hope to prove genuine, would be a sheaf of foxed and curling pages, bearing on the frontispiece the crabb’d signature, W Shakespeare – or possibly Shakespear or Shakspere – or, if you want to reproduce the lettering of the time, Shakefpeare.  But what’s in a name, and what’s in the spelling of it, either?  People did not bother overmuch about spelling in that century (and quite often not since that century, either), and Will himself would have been more interested in creating good plot twists, a handful of juicy murders, and assorted ill-starred lovers.

But however the Bard’s name is spelled, in the late 18th century that name and that signature turned up on several documents which one William Henry Ireland presented to the world.  It should be said that Mr Ireland does appear – initially at any rate – to have done the thing thoroughly.  He had found a cache of papers, he explained, belonging to a friend.  (The friend had very conveniently requested complete anonymity).  Later, by way of further provenance, Ireland produced a “legal” deed, describing how Shakespeare had willed the manuscripts to an ancestor of the Ireland clan in gratitude for having saved him from drowning.  He was nothing if not adaptable, William Ireland.

The main work was a play – Vortigern and Rowena – and it initially found favour with such theatrical luminaries as Richard Brinsley Sheridan and John Philip Kemble, although Sarah Siddons, who at first agreed to play Rowena, left the cast a week before the opening night. It’s intriguing to speculate why she did that.

And, alas for Mr Ireland, the play was a monumental flop, and was booed off the stage.

It was the knowledge of the dramatically discredited William Ireland that provided me with the gist of the plot for The Murderer Inside the MirrorBook 2 of the Theatre of Thieves mystery series.  Because if Ireland – along with a number of other canny forgers – could produce elaborate fakes, it might be an interesting chapter in the history of the disreputable Fitzglens – who made their first appearance in Chalice of Darkness – to become involved in a similar case.  The family was perfectly capable of master-minding such a thing, of course.  One or two great-uncles had specialised in that precise branch of criminal activity – creating very passable Gainsboroughs and van Dykes, happily writing elaborate provenances for silver coffee pots said to have been presented by David Garrick to Peg Woffington, and even, on one occasion, rubbing horse-hoof oil onto the pendulum of a clock so it could be offered as a Janvier piece smuggled out of Paris in a saddle bag during the French Revolution.

Creating a forged play would be meat and drink and child’s play to the Fitzglens.  Discovering a play already forged would be a gift from the gods.

The only thing likely to trip them up was the possibility that the play in question was not a forgery at all  That it might be the real thing…

Chalice of Darkness

The Murderer Inside the Mirror