Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Other people’s pulps – Con Games (and a Top Five)

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The mother of one of my pals from university was an incredible woman. When I met her she was in her seventies, tall, extremely elegant, terribly witty.
Her husband was a judge, one day we got to talk about crime1.
While she was tough on crime, she admitted she admired very much pick-pockets (“They need nerves of steel to do what they do on a crowded bus!”) and big time con-men.
Not the kind that swindle old ladies out of their pension, mind you. Big time con-men, the sort that can drain up a company accounts and vanish into tin air.482124
“It takes a lot of intelligence to do that,” she said.
I have to agree.
And as a lover of crime novels, I like grifter and heist stories much more than straight murder mysteries.

Mind you, I like a homicide investigation like the next guy, but a good, large scale, complicated swindle is my fave sort of thing.
It’s a noirish thing, really. I think the first book of this sort I ever read was Len Deighton‘s Only when I larf, and then Jim Thompson’s The Grifters came following suit.

griftersbookNow, it’s important to note that many con-based stories do have at least one death included – deals gone sour, double-dealing partners, plain old treachery…
But I like the grift, first and foremost.

A while back my friend Marina suggested I check out a show called Leverage – about a bunch of honest criminals helping people by using their specialized skills to trick and cripple the bad guys.
I somehow had missed it when it first passed on TV, and I checked it out, and found out I like the show a lot.
Leverage, with its crack-team of professional hustlers working on corrupt politicians, double-dealing companies and other assorted scumbags reminded me of another one of my faves, a BBC series called Hustle.

HUSTLE_800X600_TheConIsOn
Now, maybe because social dynamics and audience expectations are different across the pond, the British show gets an A+ from me (compared to Leverage’s A-), simply because the main characters are not good guys. They are nice and funny, sure, and you can’t follow the series without feeling a sense of deep sympathy for the guys, but they are criminals, what they do is against the law, and it is usually motivated by plain old need for money.
Then, granted, the Hustle crew hit unsavory types and assorted scumbags, too, and they often help people in need.
But they remain criminals.
And criminals with an almost pathological passion for con-games.
I can relate to that.

Talking about characters I can relate to, I recently fell in love with Lovejoy, a British TV series from the 1990s which follows the adventures of a less-than-straight antiquarian in the British countryside.
The interesting bit is, while the show is based on a book series (by Jonathan Gash) called The Lovejoy Murder Mysteries, the TV series has very little murder in it, and most of the episodes revolve around con-tricks, counterfeit art and plain old grand robbery.

WP_Lovejoy

Again, I love the intricacy of the plots, the cunning plans – especially when they backfire – and the suaveness of the characters. That, once again, are not heroes – rather, they are cunning individuals trying to make ends meet without any damage to innocent parties. Well, not much damage anyway.

BurnnoticecastWhich leads me to two other series – both of them American, this time – that do fit this sort of loose Top Five I’m compiling: Vengeance Unlimited, that I already mentioned on this blog in the past, and Burn Notice.
Both series – while very different in terms of general premises – star a character that, outside of the law, helps other people who are in trouble.
Now, neither Mr Chapel nor Michael Westen are grifters or con-men properly, and both are liable to resort to violence in their stories… and yet, it is often the suggestion of violence, that hits the bad guys. Both series work by creating complicated cons that the main characters use to cause the fall of the bad guys.

And in a way all this goes back to the disguises, the double identities and the tricks of the original pulp avengers – because “I get the bad guy and punch him up” is fine, but it’s so good to first defeat the scumbags intellectually, use their weaknesses and their greed to trap them, and then give them the coup-de-grace…

I love a good con.


  1. didn’t I tell you she was extremely elegant and terribly witty? 
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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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