RARA-AVIS: Sante, Maurer's Big Con

From: Mbdlevin@aol.com
Date: 06 Jun 2001

Colin writes:

<< The other book I reccomended as background HB reading "The
 Big Con" he also used, and in his note on sources says "someone should
 reissue (his) extraordinary The Big Con" - and low and behold they have,
 with Sante providing the introduction, I now have a copy and concur with his
 high opinion of it, it's fascinating. >>

I wrote a review of The Big Con when it was reissued in 1999. A really fine book. The review (a short) isn't up anywhere now, so I'll post it below
(hope that this is not too indulgent--thought a somewhat more detailed description of the book might be useful). Doug

Originally published in 1940, "The Big Con" is a real gem. With great relish, professional linguist--and apparent con man groupie--David W. Maurer chronicles the most elaborate confidence games of the early twentieth century. Big cons all involve "big stores," which are in effect stage sets--fake gambling clubs, sham poolrooms with off-track betting, bogus brokerage houses. Everyone in the big store--the roper, the insideman, the manager, the shills--are all actors, except the mark, who pays dearly for his lack of stage sense. Part of the endearing charm of "The Big Con" is Maurer's complete lack of sympathy for the dupes who fall victim to the con man. To be a mark--also known as a winchell, a savage, or Mr. Bates--a man
(or in some cases, a woman) must have "larceny in his veins," for the con game depends on the victim's own greed for its success. In one incident, a mark even suggests murder to maximize his expected profits. But, according to Maurer, con men have a strong code of ethics. So, in this instance, the con men's "moral indignation was aroused to such an extent that they trimmed their mark unmercifully." Occasionally, Maurer's enthusiasm gets the best of him in the form of minutiae and repetition, but generally the book moves along at a highly entertaining clip. An introduction by writer Luc Sante, himself a chronicler of New York's underworld, gives historical and literary context to the story of the con man, as well as providing a few details about the remarkable Mr. Maurer.

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