LiteratEye #26: How to Catch a Clever Literary Con Artist

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Literary Hoaxes

Here’s the twenty sixth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.


LiteratEye #26: How to Catch a Clever Literary Con Artist
By W.J. Elvin III
August 14, 2009

From The Sydney Morning Herald:

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“OK, Norma, put down that knife…”

Norma Khoury, the author of a fake tragic memoir that was the topic of last week’s LiteratEye column, seems to have a few character defects beyond lying about her past.

Her former best friend, who lived with Khouri and her husband, John Toliopoulos, for a while, recalls times when Khouri chased Toliopoulos down the street with a knife.

Then there’s the one about how she forged a property transfer for her mother’s house in a financial scam that nearly put Mom out on the street. (Her mother has not seen her for about ten years but still hopes for reconciliation).

Oh, she also got arrested for battering her mother-in-law.

It goes on. Was she angling for top-billing on “Literature’s Most Wanted” or what?

Well, juicy stuff aside, from the perspective of us curious snoops who prowl the dark side of prose and poetry, what’s most interesting about the case?

My answer is: How exactly did Khouri get outed as a faker?

That’s my answer and I’m sticking to it. Most likely, I reckon, she got outed by detective work. And was it good old-fashioned follow the bloody breadcrumbs detection, or modern high-tech, college educated forensics?

These days, films and TV dramas give the impression that detective work is either gunplay or forensics.

Certainly forensics plays a significant role in detecting literary deception. John Olsson, author of WordCrime, detects plagiarism using software he developed (see LiteratEye #14). Don Foster, another literary detective, used his software innovations to out Joe Klein as author of Primary Colors, the best-seller Clintonesque novel that was published anonymously.

Anyway, to find out “how” you first need to know “who.”

In the Khouri case, that would be Malcolm Knox, at the time book editor of The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

Knox is a popular author, and seems to have left the workaday world of journalism. I couldn’t track him down. However, I pieced together the details of his pursuit from various interviews.

As is often the case in investigative work, Knox got on Khouri’s trail thanks to tips.

The fake Jordanian virgin fleeing fantasy murderous men-folk aroused a great deal of suspicion inside Jordan, where she was unknown. A lot of her “facts” didn’t correspond to Jordanian realities.

“The concerns were initially raised inside Jordan, where the book was being held up for ridicule, because it was clearly exaggerating and falsifying facts about honor killings, which really do exist, and women’s activists were concerned about this book undermining their cause,” Knox told NPR interviewer Brooke Gladstone.

So the tips came from Jordan, cultivated as Knox replied to emails and returned phone calls.

I know the importance of tips, and the pitfalls. Having harvested a dozen and so tips a day when I was an “insider” columnist in Washington, D.C., I can attest that a tip, at best, is just the beginning. It isn’t the same as a source, like Deep Throat of the Watergate scandal.

Knox knew there wasn’t much of a story in reporting that the heart-wrenching tale of the murder of Khouri’s best friend was considered fiction in Jordan. If the story was going to amount to anything, he had to build a serious case against the fabricator.

There was a real problem with that. The Herald wouldn’t support Knox’s request to travel to Jordan to check out details.

At that point, most reporters would shrug and move on. I’ve worked in more than half a dozen newsrooms, so I know from personal experience, you don’t go your own way unless you’re some kind of superstar.

Back in the good old days of investigative reporting – in the 1970s and 80s – newspapers fielded whole teams of investigative reporters in big budget efforts to harvest a few headliner scalps.

But, with corruption being in the bloodstream of government and business, the stories kept coming and public eventually went into “yeah-sure-yawn” mode.

Today? Forget it. Newspapers are struggling to survive and management is looking at budgets like a logger looks at Redwood National Park. Investigative stories are expensive and time consuming, and can yield lengthy and costly lawsuits.

Knox, however, wasn’t one to shrug and move on. He sensed a good story, and, more than that, he felt that Khouri’s lies were damaging a legitimate and worthwhile cause – the effort to expose and halt the brutish practice of so-called “honor killing.”

Gradually it became clear that the real story was to be found not in Jordan but in Chicago.

Knox could have set the whole thing aside and enjoyed a vacation at a seaside cottage. Instead he spent his annual leave in Chicago chasing down the truth about Khouri.

To search public records and contact relatives, Knox had to know the real name of his quarry. As it turns out, Khouri’s real name is Norma Majid Khouri Michael al-Bagain Toliopoulos, a/k/a Norma Albaqeen. In Chicago, he found, the family name was “Bagain.”

Knox gathered documentary evidence such as motor vehicle ownership records and real estate transactions.

But, “The key was getting human witnesses to link Norma Bagain, the American, with Norma Khouri, the writer,” he said in an interview published in The Writer’s Reader.

Having found links by looking up the Bagain family in the phone book and public records, Knox’s next step was “walking the streets and knocking on doors.”

“… I met members of her family, and they identified her from photographs that I showed them, and I was able to identify her in photographs that they showed me of her growing up in Chicago,” Knox wrote in a Herald article. “I found members of her family, neighbors and acquaintances who remembered Khouri from her 27 years in Chicago, from age three to age 30.”

Back in Australia, Knox confronted Khouri. She had emigrated from the U.S. with her husband and two children, apparently to avoid questions in an FBI investigation.

Khouri denied ever having lived in the U.S. and claimed she only visited once on a publicity tour. “She said the records I had found were ‘planted’ to trick the Jordanian Government into giving her travel documents to escape,” Knox recalled.

Well, what are you gonna do? Khouri lies like popcorn pops.

But Knox didn’t need a confession, he had his story, and a good one it was. It would move from the news pages to a top spot in the annals of literary history: “Khouri is a fake and so is Forbidden Love.”

image: Sydney Morning Herald


(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact Literateye@gmail.com)


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