Thursday, 21 February 2013

Books: The Hoax by Clifford Irving

The Hoax: An engrossing read which gathers momentum as the hoax develops.

The Hoax by Clifford Irving
The Hoax tells the true story of Clifford Irving, a writer who one day came up with the ambitious idea of writing the authorised biography of Howard Hughes, an eccentric and reclusive American billionaire.  The only problem was that Clifford had never even met Howard and so he and his co-conspirator, Richard Suskind, set about concocting a scam whereby they would write a fictional biography and then attempt to convince McGraw-Hill Publishing House this biography was the real deal.

To convince McGraw-Hill, Clifford originally wrote up three fake letters allegedly from Howard Hughes explaining that Hughes wanted Clifford to write his official biography in order to tell the world the truth about some of the media misconceptions about him.  From there on in the hoax quickly developed until in very little time at all Clifford Irving and Richard Suskind had been given the go ahead and were researching the information they would need to create their ‘autobiography’.

In the very early stages of the hoax it becomes apparent that Clifford is out of his depth and doesn’t really know the ‘dos’ and don’ts’ to follow when you’re trying to trick someone.  In fact on a couple of occasions it’s only really a mixture of luck and the fact that McGraw-Hill desperately wanted it to be true that allowed him to avoid getting found out, but as the scam progresses so Clifford’s deceptive side develops and he gradually begins to become more accomplished in the art of illusion.

He also has a lot of luck along the way such as being asked by Stanley Meyer, an old Hollywood associate, to take a look at a ‘tell-all’ book written by Noah Dietrich, the former right-hand man of Howard Hughes, with a view to Clifford signing on as a ghost writer for the book.  Of course Clifford instead simply copied the book and turned Meyer down, then used the material for his own autobiography. homepageThe first half of The Hoax focuses largely on the research that Clifford and Richard carried out into Howard Hughes’ life, and also recalls where some of their fabricated ideas for inclusion in the book originally came from.  This is all reasonably interesting reading but it’s not until later in the book when unforeseen twists in their plan start to occur and their scheme starts to unravel that the story really comes alive.  It’s once the biography is almost ready and McGraw-Hill announce its release that the action really heats up, and yet with every new problem that occurs Clifford just comes up with an increasingly wild and creative counter-story to attempt to explain away these twists which threaten to potentially expose the hoax.

One of the tools he uses to successful effect is the art of distraction.  Whenever a development occurs which looks like it might pull the rug from under his feet he simply creates an unexpected twist of his own, usually in the form of problems from the unpredictable fictitious Howard Hughes he has created, and as a result his publishers become so embroiled in solving these new problems that they lose focus from their original questions which could potentially have revealed the whole thing as a hoax.  Ultimately though, the weight of evidence finally becomes too great and Clifford’s scheme eventually becomes exposed.

I’m usually not a fan of ‘crime’ books as in my opinion the best stories are those which have a likeable main character and I don’t find criminals likeable.  However, Clifford points out in the book that he never saw it as a crime, just a hoax.  He never spent the money so it was always there to repay to McGraw-Hill in the event that he got found out, so it’s clear that in his head he regarded it as a victimless crime.

Kobo (UK)One point that needs to be raised though is the question that given that Clifford attempted to pass off a work of fiction as an official autobiography, how can we be sure that The Hoax isn’t also a pack of lies?  This is a question which Clifford himself pre-empts and attempts to answer by pointing out that the Chief Attorney of New York promised him that if any parts of the book were false and contradicted his sworn testimony then he would risk an additional five years in jail for perjury.

Of course the response to this is that writing Howard Hughes' fake biography in the first place put Clifford at risk of going to jail and that didn’t seem to worry him on that occasion, but nevertheless, for what it’s worth the impression I got from reading The Hoax was that in all likelihood it’s most probably an accurate reflection of events and if any minor events have been changed at all then I suspect it was only to protect his friends.

For the most part, the Clifford Irving that wrote The Hoax doesn’t come across as someone attempting to rewrite history or hide his actions.  He uses flowery language on a couple of occasions to try to justify his poor behaviour towards his wife, but he never tries to hide his actions from the reader.  Overall, this gives the book the believability it needs to make it an enjoyable read.

In summary, The Hoax provides a fascinating and absorbing account of the story of Howard Hughes’ fake autobiography.  The parts of the book dealing with the research, although obviously necessary, are the least interesting sections, and it’s once these are out of the way and the publication date approaches that the book really starts to grab you.  Although you ultimately know how it all ends (if Clifford had got away with it then it’s unlikely that he would then have gone on to record his actions in a book!), it’s nevertheless fascinating to discover how the original idea developed and then eventually unravelled as the weight of evidence gradually became too great to deny any longer.

The Hoax has since been turned into a movie starring Richard Gere but the big screen version is merely inspired by the book and has been adapted by the producers and screenwriter into their own version of events, rather than being an accurate record of how things actually happened.  If you therefore want to discover the original story as told by Clifford Irving then the written version The Hoax is definitely well worth a look.  It’s a book which will draw you in as the scam develops and a story which gathers steam and momentum as it heads towards the numerous twists of its conclusion.

Clifford Irving has his own website:

Follow Clifford Irving on facebook and twitter:
Facebook: Author Clifford Irving
Twitter: @Clifford_Irving

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