On the Con

Scam Artists: A Suggested Reading List

Perhaps it’s my own particular aversion to the “amateur” sleuth thing, but my appreciation for private eyes and other “professionals” may just have to do with competence.

I mean, in the right mood, I can take unlikely amateurs rising to the occasion and grabbing the gold, saving the girl or cracking the case once (or in selected cases, maybe even twice).

But please, dear merciful God in Heaven, please, please, please don’t have the same amateur come back regularly to do it all over again, for twenty more books (or even worse, weekly on television). If that was the way God wanted it, we’d just replace all our cops with feisty librarians, folksinging veterinarians, small town doctors and nosy, tea-slurping spinsters armed with knitting needles to keep the peace.

Maybe it’s my innate crankiness and the rising ocean levels of incompetence that threaten to drown us all,  I really enjoy and admire watching someone do their job (the job they make a living at) well. Books where the protagonist constantly screws up, thereby creating most of the plot, really bother me (unless, of course, it’s played for comedic effect).

And surely one of the most competent types of characters in crime fiction must be the con artist, because he, or she, pretty much has to be smarter or more competent than everyone else, to keep all those balls in the air.

So, although they’re not always eyes, many of the same traits a good private eye needs (understanding of human nature, focus, drive) makes for a good con artist, as well.

When I first posted a message about this on Rara Avis back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, there was some debate among my fellow Rare Birds about whether a story about con artists could even be considered “hard-boiled.”

As Mark Blumenthal pointed out, “By their very definition, it should be impossible for (the two) to be combined. The good con artist is trying to avoid force. Violence should only happen when he is incompetent or very unlucky. Deception is the key. One of my favorites, Ross Thomas, almost always had con men as his protagonists, but there was little hard-boiled action. We read books about cons to see thethe execution of a scheme. The movie, The Sting, has a fair amount of violence and even some noir-like qualities, but I’m sure nobody on this list would consider it hard boiled.”

However, as Mark Sullivan puts it, ” I don’t think it is violence that defines the hard-boiled. I think it’s the professionalism held up against all odds, while the world goes to hell and loses all standards around the protagonist. And this professionalism can apply equally to private eye or criminal. Both the recent Parkers and Wyatts have the older career criminal mourning the decline of professionalism as standards have fallen now that any junkie can walk into a bank with a sawed-off.”

So, with that question lingering about whether a hard-boiled scam story can exist or not, here are a few likely candidates for those looking for a little hard-boiled scammerie, suggested by the grifters at Rara-Avis.

Watch your wallet.

  • The Contrary Blues by John Billheimer
    It’s about a small West Virginia town after coal mines close; and a decimal point error; and everyone is related to each other, featuring Department of Transportation expert Owen Allison. Better than anything Westlake did on his best day.
  • Love is a Racket by John Ridley.
    Not a romance, despite the title. Jeffty, a small-time operator with a $30,000 obligation to a Haitian drug lord, hits on the perfect plan to get himself clear. A great book.
  • The King of the Hustlers by Eugene Izzi
    I think this one qualifies as a hard-boiled con book. Of course, this particular hustler was not very smart, which makes for hard-boiled comedy.
  • Elmore Leonard
    Leonard has used a slew of grifters and would-be grifters in his books. You could argue, in fact, that La Brava is about a con-woman’s manipulations. And if I recall correctly, Gold Coast also has a con-man with a scam in hand. It is true that Leonard makes these confidence people fairly dumb, but their intent is not in doubt.
  • The Grifters by Jim Thompson
    An excellent book about con artists, which was turned into an excellent movie with a script by Donald Westlake. In fact, the con artist is a recurring character in much of Jim Thompson‘s stuff.
  • “Yellow Kid” Weil – Con Man by Yellow Kid Weil, as told to W.T. Brannon
    Anyone interested in books about cons and scams should seek this one out. I haven’t read it yet, but it has rave blurbs by Erle Stanley Gardner, Craig Rice and Brett Halliday. It looks like Weil pulled a lot of cons in the first part of the century and knew all kinds of shady hombres. The scam the girlfriend pulls in Thompson’s The Grifters (see above) is described here.
  • House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner by David Mamet
    Both films, I think, qualify as essential hardboiled con artist tales.
  • The Girl With The Long Green Heart by Lawrence Block
  • Trick Baby and Long White Con by Iceberg Slim
    Both these novels feature hard-boiled scams. The threat of violence often looms over the con man, the threat that the mark will catch on and retaliate (as happens early in The Grifters, for example). For instance, in Dan J. Marlowe‘s Four For the Money, the con man Slick is well aware that the most important part of his conning some other con men in a card game is getting out the door in a plausible manner, before they catch on that he has taken them.
  • King Con by Stephen J. Cannell
    Featuring master scammeister Beano Bates, yet another in a long line of charismatic conmen by TV’s Cannell, the man responsible for Jim Rockford (co-created with Roy Huggins) and his own E.L. “Ten Speed” Turner and Richie Brockelman. Come to think of it, Huggins’ Brett Maverick was pretty slick, too.
  • Perfect Pigeon by Richard Wormser
    A very satisfactory book about cons. Maybe not hard-boiled, but certainly medium-boiled. Well worth seeking out.
  • Switch by Alan Godfrey and Glen A. Larson
    An ex-cop and a con artist open up a detective agency in this mid-seventies CBS TV show, starring Eddie Albert and Robert Wagner. Some of the scams, particularly in the first season, were particularly enjoyable.
  • Jack O’Shea by John Shepphird
    A grifter goes straight, and seeks redemption by working as a “deception specialist,” helping victims of scams recover their losses, in a series of low-key but enjoyable short stories. The first one won a Shamus for Best P.I. Short Story.
Respectfully submitted by the hard-boiled guys and broads at Rara Avis (including Bill, Mari, William, Ed, Mario, various Marks, etc.) for their much-valued comments and suggestions.

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