The best con artists in fiction
The devil gets all the best tunes, or so they say. I don’t know whether that’s strictly true, but it’s certainly the case that he gets some of the best plots, and that fact was at the forefront of my mind as I sat down to write my fourth book, The Death of Mrs Westaway.
Having written three books about characters who were essentially in the wrong place at the wrong time – ordinary, innocent women caught up in terrifying events basically through no fault of their own – I decided I wanted to do something rather different for my fourth.
I wanted to write a book about someone creates their own nightmare – someone who sets out to commit a crime, to actively deceive others, and in doing so brings the events of the novel upon themselves. And so I created Hal – a cynical tarot reader, with a stock in trade of reading people and telling them what she thinks they want to hear, who decides to claim a legacy she’s not entitled to, and in the process starts a nightmarish sequence of dominoes.
I don’t know if Hal qualifies exactly as a con artist, but she does set out to commit a con. And in doing so, she’s following in some pretty big fictional steps. Everyone loves a chancer, and here are some of my own personal favourites…
The best con artists in fiction:
Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
If you haven’t read Patricia Highsmith’s eponymous Ripley novels, you have a treat in store. Ripley is an anti-hero like no other – at once utterly repellent, amoral and selfish, and yet at the same time all too human, and somehow compellingly sympathetic. Highsmith never attempts to excuse or soften Ripley’s increasingly psychopathic behaviour (though Ripley himself is rather more self-pitying) but in spite of that, it’s impossible not to find yourself rooting for him, even while you’re desperate for his comeuppance. In a literary landscape peopled with likeable, relatable protagonists, it’s somehow rather fabulous to find not just one novel, but a whole series of them, focussing unashamedly on a complete cad.
Danny Ocean in Ocean’s Eleven
Danny is in some ways the polar opposite of Tom – charming, handsome, principled – a knave with a heart of gold, who robs from the rich to give to the… well, ok, he doesn’t quite go that far. There’s no suggestion he’ll be giving his ill-gotten gains to anyone apart from himself and his team. But it’s true he has a code of ethics, is intensely loyal to his friends, and his choice of victim, in the form of the casino industry, is a pretty astute one. The key thing, of course, is that he’s clever, and his heist revolves around meticulous intelligence and planning. It’s always attractive, watching someone who is very, very good at what they do, and Danny has that in spades.
Brat Farrar in Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey
Brat, the hero of Josephine Tey’s eponymous novel, is a slightly unlikely con artist. In fact, he doesn’t really set out to commit a con at all – the planning and conception is down to another character entirely, the shady Alex Loding who appears only briefly at the beginning and end of the novel. Instead, Brat is swept up in Loding’s scheme and in spite of his own flair for deception, he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with his own role. Based on a real case, Tey’s novel focuses less on the mechanics of the con, and more on the toll it takes on Brat.
Patrick Jane in The Mentalist
This is a bit of a cheat, since Jane is very much a reformed con man, but there’s a kind of charming “set a thief to catch a thief” logic to the pitch of The Mentalist, which imagines that a fraudulent medium has been recruited as a consultant to the CBI to help them solve cases. Unfettered by police codes of conduct, Jane is able to use the techniques honed in his criminal career in the service of law and order, from cold reading right through to plain old pickpocketing.
Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia by Arthur Conan Doyle
It’s notable that Irene, in spite of her place in popular fiction (and in Holmes’s heart) isn’t a main character. In fact, she appears in only this one short story, and then only fleetingly. This was a problem I ran into again and again when compiling this list. I was over-run with films, novels and TV series featuring con men, but out-and-proud female con artists were much harder to come by – I say “out and proud” because in those books where they do appear, their identity is often a spoiler (a couple of my favourite thrillers have superbly manipulative women at their heart, but to reveal from the outset that they’re conning the reader would be to spoil the twist.)
My own Hal is no Irene Adler – in fact, in many ways she’s the opposite of Holmes’s brilliant, beautiful, merciless adversary. But perhaps she’s my contribution to evening the score.