Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney

In many ways the back-story of this book is more interesting than the book itself. Memoirs of a Master Forger was not written by William Heaney but by Graham Joyce, the author of a string of fantasy novels over the last 20 years. When it was released, in 2008, the author's true identity was not made public.

Some time ago I stumbled across a blog post by Joyce in which he explained that the success of the novel had been somewhat galling. It had better reviews than Joyce's previous work and went into reprint in its second week - a feat that none of his other books had managed. Joyce wrote: "It confirms some rather worrying trends in publishing."

Would this book have been just as successful if it had been released under Joyce's name? He thinks it is unlikely. Without any preconceptions about the author, critics and booksellers had to take William Heaney's 'debut' at face value. A new Graham Joyce novel has critics digging through the old reviews and booksellers reaching for the previous sales data.

It is a fascinating experiment but I found the book itself to be unremarkable. William Heaney, the central character and supposed author, is a borderline alcoholic who works for a youth organisation and, in his spare time, sells forged books and donates the proceeds to charity. He also either sees demons or has a mental illness that leads him to believe that he does.

The demons have been around since a distressing incident at college, which is recounted in flashback. The donations to charity are, in some ways, an act of penance for what happened when he was younger. They are also partly driven by the fact that Heaney is, despite the criminal activity, a kind and decent person.

William's wife has left him and the separation has caused tension between him and his children. He falls into a relationship with a younger woman, Yasmin, though he feels uncomfortable at the age gap and her pursuit of him. For things to work out, William will have to confront his demons.

Do you see what Joyce has done there? He'll have to confront his demons. His demons. Yes, the metaphor is a little heavy-handed.

Joyce says that the book contains a critique of the publishing industry. There is a satire of British Council-supported poetry and, obviously, the novel is filled with fake books as well as - apparently - a demon that lives in a manuscript. It doesn't really amount to a critique, though.

The problem is that this is part thriller, part romance and part satire but doesn't fully convince as any of those things. The threads about demons and forgeries seem to be building towards a tense conclusion that never arrives. Instead, everything is tied up with very little trouble. So much for the thriller.

The romance, too, is pretty simple. Two likeable people want to get together and there are no significant obstacles to that. Jolly good. And the satire just isn't sharp enough.

Nevertheless, Joyce writes very well and Heaney is an amusing, interesting character whose observations are often enjoyable.