Sunday, May 02, 2021

The Big Con (1940)

Although now it is as notable for being outdated as much as anything, David W. Maurer's study of the confidence racket remains as charming and engrossing as when it was published. As a linguistics professor by day, Maurer's fascination started with the lingo of con men. But the intricacies of the con job as such, as it existed during the Great Depression, are at least as fascinating, and down that road Maurer went, letting the rackets take priority over any study of the language. And why not? My copy, with introduction by Luc Sante, is classified as "crime / sociology." It's definitely an odd duck of a book. When I say it's outdated, that's merely in the mechanics of the operations as reported. Certainly the work of these "gentlemen" criminals goes on—consider the well-known African prince email scam. Back then (and perhaps now still), these tricksters were considered the upper crust in the underworld. What's outdated is the technology. One reliable ruse at that time, for example, the so-called "payoff," is built around race results that can be delayed long enough to get bets down in betting parlors on actual known winners. Or, more accurately, it's based on the believability of such a scenario. Maurer makes grifting seem more dignified and civilized than our last president did. He buys into the rationale that is common wisdom among con men, which is that you can't cheat an honest man. A lot of these cons specifically play on the existing avarice of the victim, or "mark" as he was known then (and still might be). I'm not so sure about that, but maybe that's because I'm not so sure my own avarice couldn't be excited into disaster, given the right circumstances. But Maurer is obviously comfortable with and even enjoys the company of these criminals, which enabled him to pump them for lots of interesting and entertaining information. The result is this tremendously readable book, a real page-turner in its way. The Big Con also served as a primary source for the movie The Sting, although Maurer had to take the producers to court to get the recognition. Note that Chapter 9, "The Con Man and His Lingo," is a glossary, because you're going to want to refer to it frequently.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

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