SIMON WORRALL is an easy-going man, comfortable in his home close to nature in the New York countryside. But the experience of writing his debut book shattered that peaceful illusion. 'It wasn't an easy book to write; to absorb myself in the life of a man who had no consideration for the very bonds that tie society together,' Worrall says reflectively. 'A frightening man whose greed and need to pervert everything chipped away at everything we know as decent.' This is not grandiose posturing on Worrall's part. His critically acclaimed debut, The Poet And The Murderer: A True Story Of Verse, Violence And The Art Of Forgery (Fourth Estate $140), is a captivating and often moving account of the life of one of history's greatest forgers, Mark Hofmann. Purge any romantic thoughts of a failed artist getting by through deception: Hofmann, as Worrall insists, was the faker's equivalent of Hannibal Lecter. Intelligent, a gifted chemist and frighteningly focused, Hofmann could control his mind to the point of self-hypnosis, during which he would assume the character of whichever artist's work he was faking and produce near-perfect facsimiles. And, like Lecter, he killed for his craft. Twice. Worrall's narrative is based around the 1997 Sotheby's auction of what was believed to be the long-lost manuscript of an unpublished Emily Dickinson poem, but was later revealed to be a Hofmann forgery. 'There are many similarities between Hannibal Lecter and Hofmann, in that Hofmann was so driven and so good at his crimes that he could almost have been called an artist. He was dangerous because he attacked the very threads that keep our civilisation from unravelling - trust. Without that we cannot exist happily. Hofmann manipulated and abused society's trust for his own gains.' Worrall picks up the forger's celebrated career after it was cut short by imprisonment in 1986 for the pipe-bomb killing of two associates involved in a scam that went wrong. The writer attempts to explain the psychology of the man by taking us back to the straitened Mormon home in Utah in which he was raised. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his hatred of it and his view that it was built on no more than a tissue of lies, formed the core of Hofmann's psychosis. For that reason he almost devoted his life to its destruction. 'Mark Hofmann was a gifted and very, very intelligent child, but he was held back by his Mormon father,' British-born Worrall explains. 'I see now that he turned that frustration and resentment back towards his father.' For Worrall, a 51-year-old journalist of some repute in the United States, Hofmann was the sort of subject every writer hopes to find. The author's curiosity was piqued by an article in the New York Times announcing the Dickinson sale, and then another one later announcing its cancellation. Also freaky are the many odd twists of fate that allowed the book to come to fruition. For instance, the one piece of evidence he needed for the book to stand up came to him by pure chance. 'I needed proof that Sotheby's had been receiving manuscripts from a Las Vegas store where the Dickinson poem had been seen before. Sotheby's denied any connection,' he says. 'One day I flew to Vegas, and as I walked into the store, a parcel courier entered with me and announced he had a package from the auction house. Not only that, but among the packages he delivered was the Dickinson poem - I caught it red-handed, so to speak, as Sotheby's handed it back nine months after the sale had been voided.' Like the fictitious Lecter, Hofmann - who is now in a high-security prison - is a criminal genius. He has an IQ of 149 and an expert's understanding of his craft. It seems obvious after reading Worrall's book that a person who was raised in the Mormon faith should become the world's premier document forger. He was a basement chemist who devised processes that could produce an appearance of age in manuscript paper and ink that fooled experts. He gloried in hoodwinking his peers and wallowed in his own notoriety until greed led to his downfall. Among the signatures he forged were those of the American founding fathers Abraham Lincoln, John Adams and Paul Revere. But he saved his greatest talents for the destruction of the Mormon Church. Before his arrest, Hofmann had already faked a number of supposed Mormon documents, the texts of which he deliberately designed to ridicule the church. Knowing the faith's elders would pay handsomely to keep the documents quiet, he blackmailed the church, selling his forgeries for tens of thousands of dollars each. Worrall is convinced Hofmann's arrest prevented him from carrying out the grandest hoax of all, one that would have discredited the Mormons absolutely. The Book of Mormon, the faith's holy text written by founder Joseph Smith, is known to be missing 116 pages. Hofmann's plan, Worrall believes, was to forge those missing pages and include in them text that would have wrought the undoing of the faith. Worrall's crusade to unmask Hofmann involved criss-crossing the US but when he was ready to write up his work, he met unexpected obstacles. Sotheby's was one. Worrall sensed intrigue in the story of the returned poem and investigated. Three years later, he had enough material for a captivating article. But no one would print it. 'Harpers were going to buy it, then they dropped it out of fear of litigation from Sotheby's,' Worrall says. 'Then the New Yorker said they'd take it. They pulled out too, at the last minute, for presumably the same reason.' By the time the Paris Review had taken it, the article had been assessed by six defamation lawyers for different publications, all of which rejected it after some quiet words from an unknown source. Worrall suspects some sort of old-boys' conspiracy was at play among upmarket magazines fearful of offending the venerable Sotheby's. Since then, the auction house has been embroiled in a price-fixing scandal that led to the imprisonment of its chairman Alfred Taubman. Worrall feels vindicated. 'When people ask me where Hofmann is now, I love telling them that he is in the same place as the Sotheby's chairman - in prison,' he says, relishing a laugh.