The Big Con by David W. Maurer (book review)

‘The Big Con’ by David W. Maurer has a very long sub-title, ‘The Story Of The Confidence Man And The Confidence Trick’. It’s also the book that was the basis for the 1973 film, ‘The Sting’. Maurer (1906-1981) was a linguist and psychologist and his other books were histories of criminal slang. When it came to confidence tricks, he found he had to explain they usage and ended up with this book and interviewed various American con men from pre-WW2. As a writer, if you’re going to do con jobs in stories then it becomes useful to learn how to do it and I can see why this book is regarded as a bible on the subject. I’ve been sitting on this book for some time now so thought I ought to go back to basics.

In my life, I’ve only encountered two cons, both when I was pre-diabetic. The first was when I was in London and saw the 3-card monte being played and was almost tempted to play but got warned off by, I think one of the ropers, as I hadn’t been drawn in and probably wasn’t seen as a target or they spotted how I was following the queen. The other was in Weston and one of those flash-sales that suddenly popped up back then to peddle wares cheaply but you never looked into the box until you got home and been conned. Those I had heard of, watched briefly and walked away. All praise to my lacking a herd instinct and, well, frankly, I’m too honest. Even if I win something, I’m happier to hand it back than keep it. Hardly the sort to be a con man’s mark. The ‘mark’ by the way comes from the name of con artiste Ben Marks.

In a more current 1999 introduction here, Luc Sante points out the difference between normal criminals and con men’s games: a short con takes all the money the mark is carrying, the long con gets him to go home and bring back more money. The attraction for films about con artistes is they rarely got caught because their marks would incriminate themselves for knowing it was a dodgy deal in the first place. You would have to ask yourself what these early experts would think of these con tricks being done on the phone these days where they don’t discriminate who they take their money from. I should point out that as far as I know, the most notable SF con-artist was Slippery Jim di Griz, from the Harry Harrison written book series, ‘The Stainless Steel Rat’. There might be the odd tale but nothing as substantial. Even so, on new worlds, con tricks are bound to come to the fore again.

The three main long cons probably wouldn’t work today or even 30 years ago but it doesn’t mean they can’t be updated to anything where you are given an edge to beat any system. Think of a long or big con depending on how long a message takes to get there across space and you get it a little earlier to make a few bets. A lot of the current cons depend on people being rushed to do something than think what they are doing. The old con artists depended a lot more on their marks not realising they’ve been conned to reduce any comeback.

I find the best way to deal with cold calls is to say something they wouldn’t expect on their script as it would throw them not me. Think about their introduction and asking if they are speaking to the phone owner. Who do they expect to be answering the phone? Asking why should at least give a reason which a legitimate caller will give. The ones who allege to come from Microsoft get me asking back why would I be picked out from 65 million users and are they aware they are not working for MS. I doubt if even these people read here are going to change these things. They have to rely on a script to get your confidence so the more you throw oddly at them, the less prepared and they’ll hang up and look for someone more susceptible.

I was a bit concerned when there’s a chapter defined as ‘The Mob’. Nothing to do with the Mafia but more to the pecking order and parts different people play in the long con. In comparisons to ‘The Sting’ and other long con films and TV series where the focus brings in only a single con rather than have distractions doesn’t play out in real life. Buildings are set up and its many ropers bringing in their marks to the inside man to do the play than just an one-off operation. Maurer also points out that the con men can be caught from time to time, have lawyers looking for them if they aren’t contacted regularly to spring them if possible. Where possible, the con men ensure the right people are bought off to look the other way but that was common for any criminal operation back then and even now.

The more I got into this book, the more I was checking the final chapter glossary for word explanations but many, like ‘hurdy-gurdy’, didn’t pop up. Presumably, these are not exactly grifter words and presumably Maurer wanted to differentiate them from other criminal slang of the period. Maurer does say that he could have filled a book with all the various slang used but I do wish he had covered some of the words he used in the main text more.

In some respects, although some of these con games can be applied to the future, if you’re writing a period piece SF story a’la steampunk then it might be worthwhile considering playing out a con man’s game, even if its only a side-plot. As such, this book gives some necessary insight of the real thing compared to the cinematic releases.

This book is still a learning experience on the old-fashioned con games and does give a lot more insight in how it works so worth laying your hands for a read.

GF Willmetts

May 2023

(pub: Arrow/Random House, 1940 reprinted 1999. 280 page small enlarged paperback. Price: varies. ISBN: 0-09-940999-2)

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