The Trope of the Con

by Julie, sweltering in Somerville

I host the Sisters in Crime Writers’ podcast, which gives me the opportunity to have great conversations with amazing writers about writing. Recently I interviewed Toni Kelner/Leigh Perry, and she mentioned The Big Con, a 1940 book by David W. Maurer about confidence men. She told me that the book helped the screenplay writers of The Sting, and that sold me. I love that movie.

I’m working on a book that centers on a con artist, but 2023 style. While nowadays technology can play a role, that isn’t what makes a con work. In fact, when I watched the Netflix documentary about Bernie Madoff, I was appalled and surprised at how low-tech the con was.

Con artists themselves have personality disorders that allow them to do terrible things without remorse. As a writer, these personalities are part of my toolbox for characters. Also, as a writer, I can observe those personalities with interest after I rid myself of outrage.

What interests me, as a writer, is the long con. How do you get someone to believe something and buy into it for a long time? How do you decide what the payoff is, or when to get out? Who do you trust to help you in your endeavor? Do you con them as well?

Why the con works feels easier to me. Con artists pray on our pain points, or secret desires. Greed aka getting rich quick is one of them, certainly. But there other pain points a con artist promises to mend. People want to feel as if they are smart enough to see something others aren’t. They want to feel included. They want to find an easier way to reach a goal.

Con artist research is interesting and disheartening. Empathy is necessary. We can judge the woman who fell for the romantic overtures of the handsome con artist, but should we? Wouldn’t promises of romance and partnership sway many of us? We can question why people fall for a Ponzi scheme, but if your friends told you it was a great deal, wouldn’t you believe them?

I’d make a lousy con artist. But hopefully I’ll be better at plotting one for a book. We shall see. In the meantime, what con books/movies/documentaries/podcasts do you recommend?

13 Thoughts

  1. Much food for thought, Julie! I’ve said this before, but I highly recommend Victoria Thompson’s Counterfeit Lady series. Set around 1920, the books features a Robin Hood type of con artist who grew up running cons with her father. Even though she’s now married into respectable society, she can’t help doing the occasional con to dupe a murderer or other criminal. Her father is a great character, too.

  2. This made me think of a real life con I watched play out when I was dating Bob. I’ll have to tell you about it sometime — I haven’t thought about it in years.

  3. One of Bill’s cousins was a Madoff victim. He said the reports he received listing all the investments and results were indistinguishable from the real thing.

  4. The Seventh Guppy Anthology Hook, Line, and Sinker, to which I am a proud contributor, featured 23 tales of Grifters, Cons, and their Marks. It was both interesting and difficult to write a mystery without a body!

  5. I don’t have books, etc., to recommend, but I sure think cons would make for a great mystery series. Tough to pull off, but you can do it, Julie. My mom got conned by a man proclaiming to be from her church, so she figured he had to be a good guy. Of course, he wasn’t from her church and he was not a good guy.

  6. I see Edith already mention Victoria Thompson’s Counterfeit Lady series. My go to is always White Collar. I really need an excuse to rewatch that TV series.

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