Con artist stories have always held an outsized position in pop culture, but in 2022, they’re really having a moment. No matter which streaming service or network you’re watching, there’s a grifter story ready for binging. Hulu is the home of grifter videos. The DropoutTheranos founder Elizabeth Holmes was disgraced in the movie starring Amanda Seyfried. It is now available on Netflix Anna InventedJulia Garner portrays Anna Delvey as a fake heiress. Then there’s Pam’s Best Thing on NBC, featuring Renée Zellweger as a woman who murdered at least one person to collect on a life insurance policy. And if you’re looking for the “true” version of events, queue up Tinder Swindler, Bad Vegan, The Vow, LuLaRichOr any of the other miniseries or documentaries.
Critics and sociologists have long tried to explain the public’s fascination with grifters, who are usually nonviolent but still very much criminals. It could be because con artists seem so charming and charismatic. Or are people responding to the Robin Hood element in many of these stories—stealing from the rich and giving to the … less rich? There is no definitive answer. However, you can open these books to see if the attraction appeals to your own.
Catch Me If I Can: The Real Story Behind a Reliable FakeFrank W. Abagnale
This book was already adapted by Steven Spielberg into a highly acclaimed movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio & Tom Hanks. Catch me if you can This was the classic example of con-man fiction. Frank W. Abagnale relates a partially fictionalized story about his youth. He claims to have written more than $2.5million worth of bad checks and posed as a doctor, pilot, lawyer or other professional for which he did not possess the necessary qualifications. The veracity of many—if not all—of his claims have since come into question, but the book remains a page-turning tale of deception.
The Talented Mister Ripley Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith’s novel is a work of fiction, but no list of books about con artists would be complete without it. Tom Ripley plays a smalltime criminal who is willing to leave the United States to search for DickieGreenleaf. He’s the son of a shipping magnate. At first, Tom’s charms seem innocent, but his relationship with Dickie soon turns obsessive—and dangerous. The Talented Mister Ripley was also made into an excellent film starring Jude Law and Matt Damon, but nothing can beat Highsmith’s chilling prose.
The Big Con: The Story of The Confidence ManDavid W. Maurer
If The Talented Mister Ripley The 20th-century’s most important con artist novel, it is Big Con The essential book of nonfiction. Original publication: 1940. Big Con is David W. Maurer’s wide-ranging study of grifters—their methods, their slang, and their motives. Maurer was a linguist by trade, so this is definitely the one to read if you’re looking to expand your vocabulary of old-timey words for swindling.
Confident women: Fraudsters, Gifters and Shapeshifters from the Feminine Persuasion Tori Telfer
Do not limit your attention to one particular huckster. Convincing Women This article examines a number of con artists, including all women. Tori Telfer has chapters about Margaret Lydia Burton (who stole 40 show dogs) and Loreta Janeta Vasquez (who posed as a soldier in both the Civil War’s civil war). One of her most beloved ruses is pretending to be Anastasia (the long-lost Russian duchess).
Continue reading: Uber’s Sheepish Whistle. Now She’s Releasing Fiction About Scammers and Strivers
Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of FlimflamPope Brock
Most books about con artists include a “stranger than fiction” element, and Charlatan is no exception. Pope Brock tells of John R. Brinkley who was an American con man. His quack cure for male infertility involved goat testicles. That’s just the beginning, though—by 1930, Brinkley had so effectively established himself as a pillar of the community that he almost got elected governor of Kansas.
Anna My Friend, The Real Story of a Fake SheiressRachel DeLoache Williams
Anna Delvey, née Sorokin, became one of the modern era’s most famous con artists in 2018 when New York Magazine published an account about her fraudulent activities, including pretending to Russian heiresses and robberizing luxury hotels for tens or thousands of dollars. Anna is my friend is a firsthand account from one of Delvey’s victims: Rachel DeLoache Williams, a former Vanity Fair A photo editor lost more than $62,000 on a Marrakech trip.
Bad Blood: Lies and Secrets in Silicon Valley StartupsJohn Carreyrou
Bad Blood isn’t about conning an individual, but rather pulling the wool over the eyes of an entire industry. Elizabeth Holmes, an alleged wunderkind who founded Theranos healthcare startup claimed the company revolutionized blood testing and could get results using just one fingerprick. Spoiler alert: they couldn’t. John Carreyrou’s book is a deep dive into how Theranos and Holmes pulled off their ruse and what toppled the entire house of cards. (Holmes, who was found guilty in January 2022 of defrauding investors, is currently being sentenced.
Is it possible to forgive me ever?: Memoirs from a Literary ForgerLee Israel
If niche conning is what you are looking for, then look no further. Are You Really able to Forgive me?, Lee Israel’s memoir of the time she spent forging letters by dead literary giants including Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. After sufficiently honing her craft, she started stealing real artifacts from libraries and replacing them with her own forgeries—some of which were so convincing that they continued to circulate after she was discovered and convicted of conspiracy.
King Con: The Bizarre Adventures of the Jazz Age’s Greatest ImpostorPaul Willetts
Paul Willetts recounts the hilarious story of Edgar Laplante. He was a charismatic Vaudeville performer, who was able to leave behind showbiz and reinvent himself as Chief White Elk. This fake Cherokee leader also happens to have been a war hero, civil rights activist, and a true vaudeville entertainer. Laplante continued to perform the Chief White Elk show for many years. He eventually took it to Europe where he met a Hungarian lady who paid him for a trip through Italy.
The Journey Through Death Fraud: Playing DeadElizabeth Greenwood
There have been many TV and movies that feature stories where characters fake death. This book describes the steps people take to get off the grid. Elizabeth Greenwood makes a grim topic fun by exploring how to fake death by drowning, and the different methods you can use for unidentified corpses.
The confidence-man Herman Melville
Herman Melville’s final novel is set aboard the FidèleA steamship that traveled down the Mississippi River, 1857. The satirical novel follows the grifter, who tries to con his passengers with tall stories and disguises. It takes place in a single day. His tricks don’t earn him a ton of money, though, so readers are left to wonder why he’s doing this in the first place—and what exactly he gets from his games.
Bernie Madoff, The Wizard of Lies and The Death of Trust: Bernie MadoffDiana B. Henriques
People who have ever heard of Bernie Madoff are likely to be familiar with his name. But, his criminal acts may not seem so egregious in years. Diana B. Henriques. New York Times journalist who led the paper’s coverage of the story from day one, explains how Madoff pulled off his $65 billion Ponzi scheme using court filings and eyewitness accounts—and interviews with the man himself.
The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time by Maria Konnikova
The Confidence Games, Maria Konnikova—a writer with a PhD in psychology—dissects various cons to explain how victims fell for them and what keeps us coming back even when we’re a little suspicious. Konnikova examines similarities among famous con artists, and delves into their methods of swindling unsuspecting victims.
History of Modern Art and Provenance: The Story of a Fraudster and a ForgerLaney Salisbury and Aly Sjo
You don’t need to know anything about the art world to appreciate Provenance, which explores the truly mind-boggling story of how a con man and a struggling artist teamed up to create more than 200 forged paintings that fooled some of the world’s best curators. Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo write like they’re crafting a page-turning thriller, and they are—and it all really happened.
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