The Literature of the Con: Great Books About Grifters and Swindlers

From CrimeReads:

Con men flourish in two diametrically opposite times—when the people have nothing and are desperate for anything that will raise them out of poverty; and when there is boundless plenty for the vast majority, when countries are newly awash with easy money, and there are countless newly rich men and women who can just as easily be separated from their money as they acquired it.

My book How To Kidnap The Rich is set in India, a country which is in both of these moments at once. For hundreds of millions of its very poorest, very lowest caste people, many former agricultural workers newly urbanised, every day can be a pitfall in being separated from their hard earned pittance of a salary by the army of hustlers, petty politicians, policemen, middle-men, holy men that prey on their hopes and dreams, and their precarious existence on the edge of poverty. For the few tens of millions of the upper middle class, India is the latter, where their incomes have grown tenfold since the 90s, and they fight now for the intangibles, for status, for culture, for art and experiences, and for that most important status good of all—their children’s educations.

Con men do very well in this newly rich India, and are often men from the first India looking to strike out a path in the second in search of their own wealth and escape from the strictures of a society that enforces social status with an iron fist.

Here is a list of my favourite books about hucksters, hustlers, con men big and small, desperate for their own piece of the action. You’ll notice how many of the books are set in mid-twentieth century America, a country which was the richest place that had ever existed in the history of the world, filled with newly rich citizens ripe for exploitation, ripe for crime, ripe for the taking, as well as an underclass, outlaws of wealth, race, gender, sexuality, who were cut off from social protections, social advancement, even social existence.

Huey Long, by T. Harry Williams

One of the quintessential political biographies, dazzlingly researched and written, about a figure who’d do as well in India today as he did in the America of the 1930s. A consummate liar, an abuser of mass media politics and showmanship, a political machine embezzler who used populism to break the old interests and replace them with his own. Long would tell diametrically opposed stories of his childhood to different audiences on the same day, and walk away with their votes. A genius at vote bank politics who produced a political machine that survived his death by 50 years. Williams shows that the best grifts are always the ones blessed outwardly by legality, inwardly by emotion, so much so that many Americans revere Long as a socialist genius long after all of his various tricks have been long exposed.

. . . .

The Talented Mr Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

The quintessential American novel. Everything that can be said about it has—gender, class, sexuality, the meeting of the worlds Old and New. I’ve always read it with a nod to modern India—how does a person break out of a rigid social, educational and class system when every exit is barred? By stealing someone else’s life, it turns out, and being handsomely rewarded all the way. Many modern millennial novels, post-crash, post-2008, post-meritocracy, post-Obama, are clearly deeply influenced by it, but lack the playful and delightful immorality of Tom Ripley, as well as Highsmith’s trademark lack of judgement.

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

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