THE BIG CON by David Maurer should be required reading, at least for stubbornly naive people like me who believe they can spot a criminal, trust the average person, or through honest work afford an Armani suit. Written by an academic in the late 1930s, The Big Con covers psychology overlooked in most psychology courses, and the sociology left out of Sociology. It offers a model for looking at film and literature that raises essential questions about motivation, desire as weakness, and exactly how character becomes destiny.

The Big Con was published in 1940, reappeared in 1968 as the basis of the film The Sting, was recently reprinted in its original form, and remains entirely relevant by describing a slew of confidence games still in play today. As the author proves, the con doesn't need to change his methods, because there's always a new "mark" to take the bait.

Once I started reading Maurer's book, I couldn't pick up a newspaper without finding evidence of swindles. A recent New York Times headline asked "Was He Wiser Than the Wise Guys?" The story was about a young "financial entrepreneur," Mohammed Ali Khan, who raised over $3 million with a phony brokerage firm by convincing K-mart and Forbes -- as well as members of the Gambino family (infamous in their own right) -- to trust his investments while he gambled with penny stocks. Ironically, Thomas Gambino, currently imprisoned for racketeering, filed a lawsuit against Khan based on charges of "violation of trust."

The New York Times devoted two full pages to describing the alleged swindler's charming good looks, smooth tongue, falsified and inconsistent background, luxurious parties, and tailored clothes. If The Big Con were read widely, the reporter could've just said, "Standard routine, stock props."

All of this, including the con man's ambition of drawing in older and more experienced cons, is covered in the book. According to the newspaper article, the Gambinos were persuaded to participate in the brokerage by a friend of Khan's, "a lovely old Italian gentleman, a retired vaudeville performer who lived in Hoboken." It's hard to imagine a more 1940s character description, here employed to appeal to old-time mobsters.

Clearly -- judging by the tenets of The Big Con -- this lovely old gentleman would be a "roper," or an "outside man," receiving a percentage for posing as a disinterested party!

The Big Con was written by a linguist, and the author's love of language is apparent in passages that sink into long quotes of 1930s grifter-speak, with confidence men revealing their trade. One grifter known as the Postal Kid explains getting into the business: "You go out looking for a mark you can trim. You take the chances and the gamblers take the dough... they are very nice to you when you are flush, but when you are chick, boy they give you the chill. They think you might put the bite on, and gamesters don't like to associate with grifters who are chicane. So you go out for another mark...."

This is the language that's drawn readership and praise from James Ellroy, and I suspect influenced David Mamet, among others. Mamet's written several movies (such as House of Games) based directly on confidence games, employing a similarly stilted and theatrical language, with a lack of contractions.

Maurer has a fondness for con men, an admiration of their skill and nostalgia for the old days, before squad cars, when a foot chase through town could afford a small-time con a quick escape. In the final chapter, Maurer raises speculative questions about the future of the big-time confidence games, and bemoans the federal government's "booming campaign of propaganda designed to rob the criminal of the sympathetic public opinion he has for so long enjoyed." This "sympathetic opinion" stems from the idea that cons are non-violent, and that only those with "larceny in their veins" who are hoping to get the inside deal on a sure thing will fall prey to confidence games. The con man's motto is "you can't cheat an honest man."

Armed with one's own honesty and the information obtained from this book, readers can feel flush with inside knowledge and be certain not to become a mark themselves. Of course, the rub is -- as with the Gambinos -- that those who consider themselves the most informed can often fall the hardest in con games, those "carefully rehearsed plays in which every member of the cast except the mark knows his part perfectly."

Support The Stranger