Even the most beloved real life swindlers, men like Frank Abagnale and Victor Lustig seem more like characters from novels than real people. We love the romance and drama of the scam and the narrative form a good swindle takes with a beginning, a middle and an end.
1. WHITE FOLKS in TRICK BABY
With a plot revolving around a young black con man who teams up with an more experience master, this book by ex-pimp Iceburg Slim and the subsequent film are often referred to as ‘The Black Sting’. However, the novel was written in 1967 and the film came out in 1972, a full 12 months before George Roy Hill’s classic.
White Folks identifies himself as an African American, even though his skin is light enough to pass for white. He teams up with old time swindler Blue Howard and the pair pull off a series of compex, classic scams.
Unlike The Sting, Trick Baby creates morally and racially complex characters leaving the read unsure whether to root for the heroes or not.
The Black Sting or “Bling”
2. MORDECAI JONES in FLIM FLAM MAN
Largely forgotten now, The Flim Flam Man was a big deal back in the 1960s. It spawned a short lived TV series and cemented George C. Scott as an acting legend.
Set in the 1960’s in Kentucky, the film follows a young army deserter who teams up with rural con man Mordecai Jones. The screenplay was written by the same man who wrote It’s A Mad Mad Mad World and so the scams are all punctuated with car chases and slapstick comedy.
But at its core, the film does it’s best to accurately bring to life scams like Punchboards and Three Card Monte.
3. SHORT SHEET in GOD BLESS THE MARK
To be fair, Matt “Short Sheet” Gray isn’t the hero of this Donald Westlake comedy from the 1960s - in fact, he turns up dead in the first chapter. Instead, this a rare book where the mark is the hero. Fred Fitch is the world’s most gullible man. He’s not stupid or ill-educated, he just can’t believe that people would ever lie to him.
So when his Uncle Matt turns up dead and he inherits half a million dollars, every two bit con artist, grifter and flim flam man decends on him to get his cut of the dough.
This is a neat twist on the con man genre from one of the best crime writers in modern history, the man who created the Parker series and wrote the screenplay for The Grifters.
4. CHRISTOPHER in CON MAN
With the fantastic subtitle of “This Might Sting A Little” Richard Asplin’s 2009 novel is a modern take on the con artist genre. Neil Martin’s comic store business is going down the toilet so when Christopher, the smooth talking dandy of a con man offers him an easy way to make some easy money, he jumps at the chance.
You might find the twist two thirds a bit predictable but stick with it, the final sting in the tail is a rip snorter!
5. VIRGIL RAY in SPANISH FLY
Re-released under the much slicker title of Hustle, Spanish Fly has very little in they way of story. Virgil Ray and his girlfriend Miss Rose enlist the help of a young man, Jack McGreary to pull their scams.
And they do, for 400 pages jump packed with scams, swindles and cons.
Set against in southwest American dust bowl in the 1930s this book is Of Mice and Men with grifters or a fictional version of David Maurer’s Big Con.
As I write its just 41 days, 21 hours and 54 minutes until Christmas.
Which can mean only one thing. It’s time for my annual Christmas wish list.
All of the scam related paraphernalia and literature missing from my collection.
This year, I have my eye on three things you can buy me.
1) Steve Forte’s Casino Protection
Steve Forte is the world’s leading expert on card cheating and this is his bible. It contains a lifetime of work on every move, gimmick and gambit used to separate casinos from their money. Steve also produced a 4 DVD set of him performing incredible card cheating sleights and companion book called Poker Protection but sadly, I do not own this book.
It’s out of print so be prepared to pay up to $200 for a copy. Of course, if you love me, you’ll do it.
2) Smokey Mountain Shagbark Shells
If $200 is too much to spend on me, why get a set of these beautiful shells for me. Sure, I have over 40 sets of shells used to play this classic swindle but these are among the best. Don’t let their rough and tough plain exterior fool you. These are a thing of beauty.
And they’ll on set you back $47.50.
The Notorious Roscoe from Biloxi performing with the shells
3) The Con Man - Ed McBain
Seriously? You won’t spend $50 on me. Fair enough, if you’re a cheapskate then you can buy me a copy of this book by Ed Mcbain from the 1950s. It’s a fun read. A con man is swindling new yorkers while a serial killer knocks off beautiful woman. The real joy of these books, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, is the fantastic covers. I have six different editions of this book and I’d love a seventh.
You can find this book on ebay or at abebooks for just a few bucks.
There is a perception that con artists have a code of ethics that sets them above the common thieves and thugs.
And yet, in my experience, this is rarely the case.
For most con artists, it’s simply a case of swindling being easier than straight thievery. After all, if the victim gives you his money, it’s a lot simpler than trying to steal it or resorting to violence.
And, I suppose it’s also easier to fool yourself that you’re not a criminal if the victim is, in some way, complicate in the crime.
However, I’ve also heard stories and seen with my own two eyes, con artists resorting to theft, violence and even murder to keep hold of their gains. Take, for example, this story from the police blotter in The Villager newspaper in New York, the spiritual home of the Three Card Monte.
A three-card monte dealer who worked various sidewalk locations on Broadway near Prince St. was arrested Saturday afternoon Oct. 30 for snatching money from the hands of victims, police said. Keith Jackson, 54, urged victims to step closer by saying, “It’s easy, you’ll win. You just need to show me your money,” police said. The suspect grabbed a $100 bill from one victim, $80 from another victim and $500 from a third, according to the complaint filed with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
What do you think?
Doesn’t snatching people’s cash sounds an awful lot like common theft?
Or was he simply taking what he’d won fair and square in a battle of which from which the victim can off second best?
Regardless of the truth of the matter, it is clear that the ‘rules of grift’ are not as black and white as con artist’s biographies and fictional swindlers would have us believe.