Con artists

You know how in Hollywood movies con artists are usually sexy, or interesting, or secretly kind of good guys, or all of those things (think The Grifters, Paper Moon, The Sting etc. etc.) and most of the people they scam are greedy bad people anyways, so it doesn’t really matter? When I watch those movies I’m completely sucked in, and on their side, and want them to win.

In real life, not so much. Cause, you see, scam agents and publishers are also con artists. They prey on people who are ignorant of the publishing industry and desperately want to have their work published and read. I was once ignorant of publishing and desperate to become a real author with a real published book. If I’d come across one of these scams back then I bet I would’ve fallen for it. Many otherwise smart people have.

Falling for a con isn’t about how smart you are. It’s about how much you know. It’s many years now since I’ve known enough about publishing to be immune to the kinds of scams that are regularly exposed by Writers Beware and Predators & Editors.

But on many things I’m easy to fool. If someone tells me something my instinct (like most people’s) is to believe it. I’m endlessly tricked by my friends and relatives—curse them. And April’s Fool’s Day? Gah. For starters, I’m a freelancer, so I never notice what day it is, besides most April Fool’s day gags consist of telling people something that could be plausible. What’s so dumb in believing them? There’s so many implausible things in the world that are true. You know, like Tom Cruise being a sex symbol, and people actually believing that American Beauty and The English Patient are good movies, and that Bring It On and Resident Evil 2 are bad. Excuse me?

I’ve almost been conned in NYC, but fortunately I was with a more knowledgeable person who recognised a scam (whatever it was—I still don’t know) coming.

I even understand the impulse to trick people—there’s an element of the trickster in every fiction writer. I’m just saying it ain’t that hard, nor if you’re doing it to trick money out of folks is it glamorous, noble, sexy or any of the other things that Hollywood likes to make it seem. You don’t even have to be especially smart to do it. That particular scam consists of the scammer advertising for unpublished writers and then when they send their writing the scammer says it’s fabulous and for a fee will represent the writer. Easy. All the scammer needs is for the unpub’d writer to be ignorant of the fact that good agents don’t charge fees and especially not in the multiples of a thousand.

Of course, it’s not just Hollywood that glamorises scammers. There are lots of really excellent crime books out there from the point of view of grifters. I just read Lawrence Block’s The Girl With the Long Green Heart (thanks, Naomi) and I really enjoyed it. But something happened as I read it, I started thinking about things from the griftee’s point of view. Even though—as is usual with these stories—he was a thoroughly nasty piece of work because he was greedy and thought he was gaming those who were gaming him. At which point it’s hard to see which way’s up ethically speaking. Who’re worse the people who make a living gaming people illigetimately? Or real estate speculators etc who game people legally? The grifters point at the griftees and say it wouldn’t happen to them if they weren’t so greedy. But isn’t greed for money one of the key motiviating factors of the grifter?

My head hurts.

There are lots of movies and books I enjoy whose ethics are beyond questionable. Gross Point Blank anyone? In which the hero is a guilt-free paid killer. And yet the audience is expected to be barracking for him to wind up with the girl. Which I always do even though I’m sure that were it real life and not a perverse fairy tale the first time his girl annoys him he’d off her without thinking twice.

And my point would be?

Dunno. Oh, hang on, yes I do. My point is that fiction ain’t life and that Writer’s Beware and Predator’s & Editors are doing stellar work and I salute them.


  1. Gwenda on #

    I highly recommend David W. Maurer’s The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man from the ’40s. It started out as a linguistics study, but is a fascinating taxonomy of cons, long and short. One of the points that Maurer makes is that often being smart makes someone an easier mark for a con.

  2. orangedragonfly on #

    i know what you mean about hollywood making the grifter all glamourous…as i was reading all i could think of was how traumatized i was by matchstick men, where i knew nicolas cage’s character was taking people’s money and wasn’t the best of men but i just didn’t want anything bad to happen to him! and, of course, i’m completely taken by sawyer on lost…

    but i worry all the time that i’ll be conned by someone. i’m trusting by nature. scary.

    and now to be *totally* off topic…

    i read magic or madness today, and i love love loved it!! i wish i could have lunch with reason, tom, and jay-tee..i can’t wait to get my hands on magic lessons, so i can get to know them better! 🙂

    by the way, *fantastic* that tom so knowledgeably told the story of great expectations…by “shakespeare.” love it!

    i will say, however, that there was quite the uneasy twinge in my stomach when i read the last two pages. creepy. but way to leave me wainting more!!!

  3. innle on #

    Like you, I am notoriously gullible about personal things (something that wasn’t of great use when I was travelling by myself in SE Asia). I am like Mulder; I want to believe! That said, I’m also very on my guard professionally – or I’d like to think that, anyway – and I’ll be more so after reading Writer Beware etc. Thank you for the links!

    I ran across some unsolicited MSS yesterday that mentioned agencies on the 20 Worst list, although thankfully none from them directly. Hmm.

  4. veejane on #

    Cons are cons because they work. Long cons are risky and tend to prey on the fabulously and idiotically rich; it is short cons that tend to hurt the little guy, and with little risk to the con man.

    Have you read the original novel of the grifters? Between that and Double Indemnity, I figured out the appeal of the con. There’s a single paragraph on it in the latter, when the insurance agent is talking himself into the conspiracy:

    “all right, I’m their agent. I’m a croupier in that game. I know all their tricks, I lie awake nights thinking up tricks, so I’ll be ready for them when they come at me. And the one night I think up a trick, and get to thinking I could crook the wheel myself if I could only put a plant out there to put down my bet. THat’s all.”

    Huff (Neff in the movie) pays for this little bit of competitive play; so does the son in The Grifters.

    The tragedy of the book version of the grifters is that Roy has a day job, and halfway through he sort of falls in love with his day job, and realizes he’s good at it and could do it well every day. And when he pays attention to it, it is as intellectually satisfying as the grift ever was. But he’s been in it is whole life, and it’s a default, and he can’t drag himself out despite the temptation of an honest job.

  5. shelly rae on #

    Dear (Anti-capitalist) Justine,
    You that story of America being all Mom (Happy Mother’s day to all you Mom’s out there) and Apple Pie? Well it’s just part of the big con-game that is this country. Pretty much everything can be boiled down to tempting other folks into having enough confidence in you to accept your deal–that’s the core of everything from religion to “business transactions.” How did those guys manage to buy Manhattan Island for a few beads anyway? (I hope I don’t sound too cynical–you know I’m a blue-eyed optimist). I love stories & April Fool’s Day (every year I manage to get Paul on some little trick–even if he’s waiting for it), and other tales of “Confidences.” Sometimes I think I’m the only person who’s ever read Melville’s The Confidence Man which surely must be one of his finest works. And well heck, isn’t confidence one fine word? I’m confident you’ll agree….
    (Not so) confidentially yours,

    P.S. If I ever own a boat I’ll name it Fidelis cause all boats should sail with confidence!

  6. Chris S. on #

    bring it on. Yep, great movie.

  7. Justine on #

    I’m running round like a headless chook (we leave in less than a week! aargh!) at the mo (which is why I’m behind with emails as well—sorry!) so I will be brief. Yes, I’ve read the orig Grifters. In fact I’ve read all of Jim Thompson’s books as well as all of James M. Cain’s. Not to mention Chandler and Hammett and even Horace McCoy. I’m a bit of a hardboiled tragic.

    Thanks for the other recs and the fascinating responses. You’ve all brought some coherence to my incoherent ramblings . . .

  8. Justine on #

    Thanks for the link. Wow. That woman sounds like a piece of work. But good on you for making sure she doesn’t get away with any of that stuff again.

  9. maureen johnson on #

    I was reading this the other day and shaking my head in dismay–I went to writers beware as well. I had no idea how widespread this was.

    And then, just tonight, I got a call from my family. Our neighbor’s daughter got suckered into one of these things, and they called me for advice (I guess wondering if it was legit). Fortunately, they hadn’t sent any money yet. But even as I was telling them not to order the leather bound whatever it was–they were still asking, should we do it just for the prestige of having a book with our work in it?

    I felt like a heel to have to say, “There is no prestige in this. It’s a scam. Please don’t waste your money on these people.”

  10. Sara Williams on #

    My novel, The Don Juan Con, is under option by Robert Evans/Paramount. I first became aware of sweetheart swindler con jobs as a news reporter and helped a victim jail one of these con artists.
    I wrote the novel years later after becoming aware that victims got no cred and realizing how prevalent these schemes are.
    I’m trying to start a database to help victims. If we pass the word about the scams we might help the next victim.

  11. Josh on #

    wow, as soon as i read the first lines of your post, i thot of the block novel, one of the few he set near his native buffalo (and have you read his first, grifter’s game? it’s evil). then chester himes. which is the himes novel in which the conmen bake money?

    Horace Mccoy’s groovy too: I should have stayed home has the most fascinating homophobia (okay, philip marlowe’s is not uninteresting either): on the very first page or two, the narrator muses first on how disgustingly gay the Nazis are and second on how disgustingly anti-gay the Nazis are. Not a rare aporia for liberals in that era.

  12. Justine on #

    Josh: Nope, that was my first Block. I shall now track down Grifter’s Game.

    I don’t remember that McCoy. Hmmm, maybe it’s time for a re-read of the McCoy oeuvre. And, yeah, Philip Marlowe’s homophobia is (scary) fascinating.

Comments are closed.