25 Books to Read Before You Die

Reviews From


Saturday, April 27th, 2002


The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man

by David W Maurer

A review by Steve Fidel

The first truly entertaining book I read about men putting the bite on one another was Donald E. Westlake's God Save the Mark. I was 12, and have never lost my love for a good swindle tale. My young adult years were filled with stories of amiable riff-raff in the form of books like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, lots of Westlake and Elmore Leonard. Hollywood, to my great delight, produced scores of wonderful fraud flicks. The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity (novel by James M. Cain), Paper Moon (also a wonderful book), The Usual Suspects, The Last Seduction, Jackie Brown (a Leonard story), and The Sting, which won the 1973 Oscar for Best Picture, tucked neatly between Coppola's twin awards for Godfather I and II.

One of the primary source materials for The Sting was David Maurer's classic handbook of American confidence games, The Big Con, which first appeared in 1940. In a country replete with televangelists, Wall Street boondoggles (the dot.com bubble the most recent example), and endless pyramid schemes, the interesting thing is that Maurer's is neither a cautionary nor sensationalistic tale. A sociologist and professor of linguistics, Maurer approached his subject with the thorough mind of an academic. Well-researched and well-documented, the book is a catalogue of confidence schemes revealed through dozens of primary sources, con-men all a solid work of scholarship with no contemporary equal.

When it comes to double-dealing, America is a bit schizophrenic. The world over, we are regarded as a gullible people. Yet we have produced more than our share of charlatans. Baudelaire, it seems, may have been very close to the mark when he said, "Americans love so much to be fooled."

Where else could a questionable cache of gold plates in upstate New York evolve into one of today's most dynamic religions? Though spiritual snake oil is only the tip of the iceberg. As Maurer points out, there are a good number of now-legitimate American businesses that began their lives as ornate confidence schemes. The American political system appears sometimes little more than a confidence game; and certainly the election of the current president suggests someone got swindled.

We don't like our cheats to appear too evil, however. Melville, for example, in his seminal The Confidence Man tossed his tale with such venom that it put the final nail in the coffin of his literary career. Tricksters in other cultures are commonly found out and undone; but we prefer our swindlers likeable and given a sporting chance. A fraud here is more likely to end his/her days in a gated community than behind bars. Mark Twain recorded his confidence yarns with such love that they've become international classics. And only after his death, did a significant audience begin to appreciate the dark duplicity of Jim Thompson's characters.

The difference between The Big Con and most of the above, is that those works want you to believe that an average Joe or Josephine is unlikely to get involved in a swindle you would have to be an extraordinary fool to fall for one of those wise guys. The Big Con, however, demonstrates that 90 percent of us are likely to fall for a shakedown, because 90 percent of us are essentially dishonest and greedy. It's true, an honest man cannot be cheated because in order to be cheated, there has to be at least a little larceny in your heart.

The con man in America, Maurer demonstrates, has it easy because we have earned so much of our wealth through slick marketers and sales people, we prefer to examine not too closely a friend or acquaintance who might have a bit of the grifter in their soul. But we all know them. They surround us (mostly in upper-middle class neighborhoods) at work, at school, in our own families, and in our churches.

Rootless, suspect of history, most comfortable with surface interactions, we respond most positively to a nice face, quick wit, and superficial kindnesses. The Big Con has convinced me that most Average Joes are natural marks God Save Us, as Westlake put it so eloquently those many years ago.

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