Wednesday, June 16, 2010

...All The Con Men and Their Acrobats*

There’s an old saying, “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Those are wise words, because as we all know, there are any number of con artists and charlatans who are only too happy to take money from the unwary. Whether it’s through scam Emails, Ponzi schemes or other ruses, con artists and scammers are a fact of life. They’re a fact of crime fiction, too, and that makes sense. After all, scams are unethical, even when they’re not outright illegal, and having been badly “burned” certainly might give one a very good motive for murder. Playing on others’ dreams, greed and vulnerability has been a part of crime fiction for a long time.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, Mr. Jabez Wilson, a pawnbroker, thinks he’s stumbled onto an excellent source of extra income. His assistant, Vincent Spaulding, shows him a newspaper advertisement placed by a group called The Red-Headed League requesting men with red hair to appear for a job interview for easy work and good pay. Wilson can use the extra income, so he goes to the interview and to his delight, gets the job. All he has to do is spend a certain amount of time in the Red-Headed League’s office copying an encyclopedia. All’s well until one day, Wilson goes to the office and finds a sign saying that the Red-Headed League is dissolved. He’s not even able to locate the person who’d hired him. Frustrated at losing his income, and intrigued at the mystery, he goes to Sherlock Holmes for help. Holmes and Watson look into the matter and find that Wilson and his pawn shop were used by a criminal gang to gain access to a bank they wanted to rob. Wilson was, if you will, the victim of a swindle.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, wealthy American businessman Rufus Van Aldin is very concerned about his daughter, Ruth. Several years earlier, she was involved with a scam artist who calls himself Comte Armand de la Roche. His particular line of business was to ingratiate himself with wealthy women and persuade them to give him money, jewels and other valuables. Van Aldin had managed to separate Ruth and the Comte before, but ten years later, they meet up again and once again, de la Roche is apparently after Ruth’s wealth. This time, he seems to have designs on a very valuable ruby called the Heart of Fire, which Rufus Van Aldin has managed to buy for his daughter. Against all good sense, Ruth goes to meet de la Roche, with the intention, among other things, of letting him “borrow” the necklace for a book he’s supposedly writing. When Ruth is murdered on the famous Blue Train, a letter the count wrote her puts him squarely under suspicion, especially when it’s discovered that the jewels are missing. Hercule Poirot, who’s traveling on the same train, looks into the matter, and soon discovers that the count is not the only one who might have had a reason to kill Ruth.

In Christie’s short story, Double Sin, which appears in Double Sin and Other Stories, Poirot and Hastings are on a train journey to Charlock Bay to assist Poirot’s friend, theatrical agent Joseph Aarons, who’s staying there. On the way, they meet Mary Durrant. Her aunt, Elizabeth Penn, is a respected antiques dealer who’s acquired a set of valuable miniatures. A possible buyer, Mr. J. Baker Wood, is interested in the miniatures and is willing to pay well for them. So Mary, who’s just learning the business, is sent to Charlock Bay with the miniatures. Her task is to deliver them and accept payment. When the train arrives in Charlock Bay, though, Mary frantically begs Poirot’s help, claiming that the miniatures have been stolen. Poirot agrees to investigate, and he has an interview with the proposed buyer. When Wood claims that he bought the miniatures and paid for them, it looks very much as though a thief has gotten the money and pretended to be Elizabeth Penn’s representative. All is not as it seems, though, and Poirot soon figures out that there’s been a scam operation at work.

We meet another sort of con artist in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Mma. Precious Ramotswe has just opened her detective agency. One day, she gets a visit from Happy Babetsi, who’s got a unique sort of problem. Her father had gone off to find work in Bulawayo when she was a baby, and had never returned. Over the years, Happy Babetsi had become a successful bank subaccountant and was doing well for herself. Now, all of a sudden, her father has returned. He says that he’s come back to renew his relationship with Happy, and, out of a sense of duty, she takes him in. Before long, he’s eating most of the food, doing almost nothing to help around the house, and is spending a great deal of money on special medications and other expenses. Happy Babetsi soon comes to believe that the man living on her income is not her real father and is only exploiting her. So she comes to Mma. Rarmotswe to see if she can help uncover the truth. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and ends up using a ruse of her own to get the man to tell her the truth about who he is and why he’s there.

Lawrence Block’s Gifter’s Game introduces us to Joe Marlin, an experienced con man. His specialty is running scams to steal money from beautiful women, and he’s generally quite successful at it. Then, he meets his match. Marlin’s on the run from some unpaid bills in Philadelphia, and ends up taking a train to Atlantic City. He knows he needs to find a hotel, but he also knows that if he tries to check into a hotel without luggage (which he doesn’t have), he’ll be asked to pay for his room right away (which he can’t). So he steals a stranger’s suitcase and goes to the Shelburne Hotel, hoping that once he checks in, he’ll find his next credulous “mark.” When Marlin opens the suitcase he stole, he’s shocked to find that it’s full of heroin. As it turns out, the suitcase belongs to the husband of Mona Brassard, a beautiful woman whom Marlin’s just met. He soon finds himself falling in love with her and before he knows it, he’s involved in a dangerous plan to kill her husband. Now Marlin’s got to successfully carry this plan out – unless he wants to become a victim himself.

Inspector Espinosa of the Rio de Janeiro police has to deal with what may be a very elaborate ruse in Luis Alfredo García-Roza’s Southwesterly Wind. In that novel, we meet Gabriel, a troubled young man who lives with his mother, a religious fanatic. Gabriel is panic-stricken because on his 29th birthday, he was told by a psychic that he would commit murder before his next birthday. As his next birthday approaches, he goes to see Espinosa to try to prevent the murder. Espinosa is skeptical, but he doesn’t dismiss Gabriel’s concerns outright. He agrees to keep Gabriel under surveillance. Then, a co-worker of Gabriel’s is killed. Then another violent death occurs. The only thing that seems to connect these deaths is Gabriel himself. Now, Espinosa has to find out what sort of malevolent ruse is at work, and who’s responsible.

Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief begins with a possible scam. Ispettore Vianello is concerned about his aunt, Zia Anita. She’s become a fan of astrology lately, and has been withdrawing money from the family business accounts and not telling anyone what she uses it for. To make matters worse, she’s begun to be a devotee of Stefano Gorini, a man with a very shady reputation. Commissario Guido Brunetti agrees to try to find out more about Gorini, and with help from Signorina Elettra, his boss’ capable assistant, Brunetti finds out some disturbing things. Gorini’s been in trouble more than once for various scams, including passing himself off as a doctor without the proper credentials. It seems that Zia Anita (and many other people, too) have fallen victim to a charlatan. As though that weren’t enough to keep Brunetti occupied, a violent murder occurs, and Brunetti and his team are plunged into that investigation as well. In the end, Brunetti and Vianello connect what they’ve found out about Gorini with some odd mishaps at the Ospedale Civil, and are able to convince Zia Anita that her trust in Gorini has been misplaced.

Con artists and charlatans have been a part of crime fiction for a long time, and it’s a good match. They’re usually up to no good, they can create some very angry victims, and staying one step ahead of the law, so to speak, can make for an interesting layer of suspense. Have you enjoyed novels featuring confidence tricksters? Which ones have you especially liked?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Getting Closer.


  1. First of all, I love that you increased the font size on your blog. It's much easier to read.

    Love your example, I haven't read all these books but they are great examples.

    I have a question for you, how do you read? When you read a mystery, do you take notes somewhere? How do you remember all this stuff?

    I guess that's more than one question.


  2. Clarissa - I'm glad you find the blog easier to read; that was one reason I changed the look of the blog - so people could read it more easily.

    Thanks, too, for your questions. When I read, I can't really describe it - I read. Just like other crime fiction fans read. I don't keep notes. Well, not written ones. I remember what I read; it's a weird thing with me, and not easy to put into words.

  3. Cons and scams make for intriguing twists and turns in a plot. This is especially true of the con artist is handsome and charming. No one wants to believe that type of person would be a criminal.

    Margot, I wanted to say a special thanks to you for guest blogging at Thoughts in Progress today. I enjoyed your post very much, as well as the comments. The door is always open to you and the welcome mat is out. Thanks again.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - Oh, how very nice of you! I thoroughly enjoyed my visit today, too : ). You've got such nice readers, and you are truly a wonderful hostess. Count on it - I'll be back :).

    You make a good point, too, about the plot twists and turns when there's a con artist at work. You never know what can happen, and I think it's especially interesting when the scammer gets scammed. I hadn't thought about the "young and good-looking" factor, but that makes sense. People don't want to believe that someone that young and attractive could also be a con artist...

  5. Oh, you have changed your blog too, Margot (I just visited Jose Ignacio and found he'd changed his). I do like it very much, especially the larger font ;-), but also I think it is a very elegant design.

    As usual this is a great and informative post. It is quite hard to do con men well I think, but when it is done well it is great to read. I particularly remember the example you give of McCall Smith.

  6. How funny that you are writing about scams today! I have just finished a thriller including a scam (a subplot), but there is such an interesting twist to it. Sorry, but I cannot tell you more without spoiling it, and I just read today that this series has been sold to an American publisher.

  7. Maxine - Thanks for the kind words. Isn't that McCall Smith example a great story? I'm glad that you like the new layout, too. I really did want to make it easier to read, and if you think it looks elegant, too, then so much the better : ).

    Dorte - Ooh, that book sounds intriguing. I'm going to have to see if I can figure out what it is : ). And if it's been sold to an American publisher, I may even have a chance at getting a copy : ).