Spanish Prisoners: 5 Indispensable Books of Scam Fiction
Neil Gaiman and Jim Thompson bonded by Scam Fiction?
It’s all a scam, isn’t it?
My alarm goes off in the morning and I eat some cereal some marketer scammed me into thinking tastes good and is good for me. I wash myself with products I’ve been scammed into thinking will make me more pleasant company. I buy cigarettes I’ve scammed myself into thinking won’t really shorten my life from a convenience store clerk who scams me into thinking I’m paying a fair price. I go to my day-job and scam my boss into thinking I’m working hard just as he scams me into thinking my paycheck is as much as I deserve. Then I come home and attempt to scam you fine people into thinking I know what I’m talking about when it comes to crime fiction.
But of course, you’re too smart for that. So instead, I’m just gonna lay out some of the finer examples of scam fiction—fiction by, for, and about scam artists—and let these works scam you into reading them.
1. American Gods by Neil Gaiman: They say that the greatest trick the Devil ever played on the world is convincing us he doesn’t exist. I hold the inverse to be true: God has suckered the lot of us into thinking He is real and is somewhere right now, still laughing His holy ass off. Neil Gaiman makes much the case in his 2001 novel, though in a much more subtle way than an atheist/Dudeist/Satanic crabby-pants like me could do. The premise upon which this book (my personal favorite work of Gaiman’s, which is saying something, given his CV) is built is that all the immigrants who have flooded our shores over the centuries have brought with them each their gods and goddesses and devils and angels, and now they’re all sitting around, nearly forgotten. Seeing as how the Vikings were among the first to stumble upon this mass of land, Odin is among the eldest of these American gods and, it should come as little surprise, one of the biggest con artists to ever come down the pike. As the story unfolds around the protagonist, Shadow, he discovers how the old gods are being replaced by the New, and how Odin attempts to pull off the biggest scam of all. Of course, half the fun of reading scam fiction is discovering all the little tricks of the trade along the way. And in my former career as register-jockey at the corner grocery, this book taught me to be wary of supposedly befuddled old men claiming to be short-changed. Try it on some other sucker, Mr. Wednesday.
2. The Grifters by Jim Thompson: Ol’ Jimmy Thompson has long been a favorite of mine and really of anybody who is hardcore into the hard-boiled. He’s most well-known for his searingly disturbing insights into the minds of lunatics, as in Savage Night and his most famous work, The Killer inside Me. But Thompson also had an obvious love/hate for the Bunco artist in his works, such as the Mitch Allison short stories like “The Frightening Frammis.” The Grifters is his most highly regarded novel in this oeuvre, and with good reason. Roy Dillon is a con-man who ends up on the wrong end of a Louisville Slugger, and his mother, who taught him everything he knows, comes to take care of him. Unfortunately, she ends up taking care of him. Thompson also often had a subtext of incest and family love gone awry in a lot of his work—sorta like V.C. Andrews except marginally less creepy and actually well-written. Eventually getting fed up with both his ma and the hustle, he decides to leave the life behind and become a salesman (six of one, half-dozen of the other…). But in a Jim Thompson story, the biggest mark is the usually the con-man himself. When Roy tries to go straight, he learns the hard way that easy street is difficult to leave behind.
3. The Big Book of Hoaxes by Carl Sifakis, et al: Technically, this is not a book of fiction, but any scam-fan would be hard-pressed to find a more thorough and more thoroughly entertaining encyclopedia of grift. Part of the line of Big Books from Paradox Press (an imprint of DC Comics), this factoid book is an over-sized chunk of the history of hoaxes, some for fun, some for profit, all for the edification of the serious con-artist. You’ll meet Joey Skaggs, New York’s king of the prank; Princess Caraboo, beautiful heiress to a non-existent island paradise; and Steve Brodie, the real-life inspiration for the Bugs Bunny cartoon, “Bowery Bugs.” You’ll learn the badger game, the obituary hustle, the dog scam, and the protocols of the elders of Zion. Sifakis and his writers’ efforts are all illustrated, like all of Paradox’s Big Books, by the cream of the cartoonists’ crop, such as Sergio Aragonés, Rick Geary, Joe Sacco, Gahan Wilson, and Steve Leialoha, just to name a very, very few. This book is sadly out-of-print, but happily not too hard to find—hell, it may even be at your local library. However you get your hands on it, no scam-fiction collection is complete without it.
4. The Last Match by David Dodge: The paperback publisher Hard Case Crime, Charles Ardai’s baby, has done the crime genre massive amounts of favors, but I think the greatest one was this, rescuing David Dodge’s final novel from thirty-plus years of collecting dust on a shelf somewhere. Dodge spent most of his long career as a travel writer, and thus saw most of the world. He learned about other nations, other cultures, and the myriad ways there are of parting a fool and his money. The afterword from his grown daughter reveals to us that the book is largely autobiographical, although the romantic plot-thread that ties all of Curly’s (mis)adventures together is just that: something to tie all the stories together. Dodge dabbled in fiction as well throughout his life, starting with the Whit Whitney mystery series, and also the adventure novel Plunder of the Sun (also available from Hard Case). And though his publishers back in the ‘70s felt this work was not his strongest, it reads to me like the novel the guy was quite literally born to write. A lifetime’s worth of anecdotes and narrow escapes, all told by a guy who could lift your wallet but would rather talk you into doing it for him. I can only hope my own life’s work is as successful.
5. Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham: Where The Last Match is often played kinda light, y’know, nothing ever gets too serious, Nightmare Alley is as serious as it gets. And it is my all-time favorite book of all time ever and forever. Our tragic hero, Stan Carlisle, rises from being the bottom-rung in a sideshow fortune-teller racket to being the nation’s leading expert on the occult and medium for the dead, and then all the way back down to being less than human. Stan has got the wit and intelligence to do anything he wants with his life, but he’s also got a mean streak in him a mile wide and sense of entitlement that even I’d have a hard time keeping. So even though the story is a true American tragedy, during Stan’s rise to con-artist glory, we sympathize with his plight and learn that most marks really have it coming. It’s often my contention that most victims of Murphy games are actually victims of their own greed. Who else would send their life savings to some Nigerian prince via e-mail except for a moron who thinks a big payday is coming? Gresham, though completely brutal to his protagonist, has no tears to shed for the lazy-money shitheads who go in for this sorta nonsense. Too bad the guy offed himself back in the ‘60s, ‘cause I sure would like to shake his hand.
Yeah, it’s not always a pretty life, the life of a confidence trickster. Hell, if these guys spent half the energy they put into avoiding work into an actual job, they’d probably be fuckin’ millionaires already. But that’s for suckers. Any jerk can toe the line, do what he’s told, and be given a nice shiny penny for his troubles. But if a guy is smart enough and has got the brass balls to change the rules, even if only for a moment, then he can be looking at a bigger payday than any of us will ever see. And at the very least, it’s good for a laugh, just picturing the look on the mark’s face when he realizes he’s been had.
Of course, a real con artist never gets to actually see that look because he or she is already halfway to Costa Rica with the loot. But still. It’s good for a laugh.