Grifting Away: The Big Con

Fascinated by swindlers? I’ll have to confess I am, probably because it is such an alien concept to me. Not only does it require snappy thinking on your feet to steer a mark the way you want, it requires faking empathy and, of course, a complete disregard for others. Myself, I’m more like Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory: “Check your email, because when I think of a retort, I’ll send it to you!” (Or something to that effect.) I could never be a con-man because I’m not quick enough in conversation, not a good actor and, hopefully this is a more positive trait, constitutionally not able to screw someone like a con man does. But I don’t think I’d make a good soldier either and I do love reading about war, so why not cons?

The grandfather of all books on cons is The Big Con, by David Maurer, first published in 1940, available now as a high quality e-book. Professor Maurer was a linguist who, apparently, knew a lot of con men. He seems to have first approached the subject of confidence games from the argot but the book, while it does have an extensive glossary, is first a story of the confidence games and the con men themselves.

It distinguishes short cons, like the old shell games or rigged card games, where the mark is fleeced for his cash on hand, to big cons, which played out over hours or weeks, and involve putting the mark on the send for more money. We learn of what a store is and how they came to be: they are false gambling, brokerage, or other establishments that are completely stocked with con men and exist only for the purpose of duping the mark.

The stages of a con are also elaborated from the roper’s identification of a mark and directing him to the store to the blow-off where the mark, once fleeced is sent on his way in a manner least likely to cause problems for the con man. Sometimes that is no more than sending him to another city to “square accounts,” the con man never arriving, of course. Other times it has to be more dramatic, as with a fake murder that causes the mark to run and hide. Such a murder might involve a packet of chicken’s blood hidden in the mouth, a cackle-bladder.

If all of this sounds suspiciously like the 70’s movie, The Sting, it should: Maurer filed a $10 million lawsuit against the studio and received an out-of-court settlement in his favor. I love that movie but always figured it was just Hollywood make-believe. It isn’t and The Big Con will show you the ins and outs of this scam and many others.

The book even goes into the bit players, how people become big con players, what happens to old con men, even what type of personal lives they tended to keep or whether any of them ever cashed out while still on top. I can’t say it has given me any immediate story ideas but as an illustration of one aspect of human nature and just a fascinating read in itself, I recommend it.

Be warned, like anything, it is a child of its times. There is some overt and ugly racism in a few places. It is also sexist, although not as much as I expected given the racism. The style is a little slow. Some of the reviews on Amazon claim it is repetitive and you only need to read the first quarter or so. Personally, I did not find it very repetitive chapter to chapter, but rather found a lot of the prose a bit more wordy and repetitive at the paragraph level. The other annoyance is that argot is used throughout, usually with no definition aside from the glossary in the back. In a hard-copy, this would not be too much of an issue but in an e-book I found it somewhat annoying (a better e-book edition would have had a link to the glossary at first use). There are a handful of transcription errors but overall editing was good.

If you liked The Sting, and some of the later movies on cons, like The Grifters, or just like a fascinating true-crime read, and can tolerate its unfortunate bigotry, I definitely recommend it.


3 thoughts on “Grifting Away: The Big Con

  1. Hey. Long time no see, eh? Was just looking through your blog and saw this post. I too have had a problem getting into the heads of characters who are nothing like me. I have a character who is a special forces type guy and I just couldn’t get my head wrapped around why he would do what he did.

    I came across a book called the Wisdom of Psycopaths. The premise of the book is that people in high stress/high functioning jobs like CEOs, brain surgeons, police force, spies, and special forces (and even Tibetan monks!) share many of the same characteristics of psycopaths. Cons would probably fit into that category too. After reading the book, I had a much better understanding of why my character did what he did and why he did it. Highly recommend it to any author. Great read. Check out the author’s link:

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