The old saying is that a fool and his money are soon parted. And there are plenty of people who are happy to take advantage of others that way. Scammers and grifters have been a part of many societies for a long time, and they certainly show up in crime fiction. It’s interesting, too, to see how they’re treated in the genre. There are far too many examples for me to mention them all, so here are just a few. I know you can think of many more than I could.
In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Comte Armand de la Roche. He’s got a notorious reputation when it comes to women, and it’s fairly well known that he preys on them financially. Ten years before the events in the novel, he was in a relationship with wealthy Ruth Van Aldin. Her father, Rufus Van Aldin, knew of the Comte’s reputation, and separated the two lovers. Unbeknownst to him, though, she has taken up with de la Roche again. In fact, she plans a trip on the famous Blue Train to see the Comte, although she tells her father she’s going elsewhere. With her, she brings a very valuable ruby called Heart of Fire, which de la Roche wants to ‘see’ for ‘a book he’s writing.’ Ruth is murdered while she’s on the train, and her jewels are stolen. When her body is discovered, it doesn’t take long for the police to focus on the Comte de la Roche as a ‘person of interest.’ He claims innocence, though, and Hercule Poirot, who’s working with the police on the investigation, is inclined to believe it. So, he looks elsewhere for the murderer.
In Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho, Mary Crane steals US$40,000 from a client of the real estate firm where she works, and then goes on the run. She wants the money so that she and her fiancé can get married, and her plan is to meet up with him. Along the way, she takes a wrong turn and ends up on a back road. Needing a place to stay for the night, she stops at the Bates Motel. There, she meets the proprietor, Norman Bates, who finds her attractive, and invites her to have dinner with him. As fans of this story know, things do not end well for Mary. The 1960 Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of the story does have differences from the original novel. But its focus is still the story of what happens when this young embezzler decides to spend the night at an…unusual motel.
Jim Thompson’s The Grifters is the story of con artist Roy Dillon. When he is injured during a con job that went wrong, his mother Lilly (a con artist in her own right) hires an attractive nurse to look after him, hoping that she will distract Roy from his current girlfriend, Moira. It doesn’t work. For different reasons, both Lilly and Moira want Roy to give up the grift and ‘go straight.’ Roy does decide to take a legitimate sales job, but everything changes when the police inform him that his mother has committed suicide. Roy doesn’t believe it, but the real truth is far different to what he expected. This noir story highlights the sometimes self-destructive tendencies that scammers and grifters can have. And it’s interesting to see the way grifting runs in the family (right, fans of Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon?).
Mark Billingham’s Their Little Secret is part of his series featuring Detective Inspector (DI) Tom Thorne. In one plot thread, Thorne and his team investigate the suicide of Philippa Goodwin. At first, it looks like a tragic, but straightforward, case. But Thorne believes there’s more to the story than it seems, and he starts to dig a little deeper into the matter. He finds that the dead woman was the victim of a con man named Conrad Simpkins. He and his team are working that case when a young man named Kevin Deane is found bludgeoned and washed up on a beach. DNA evidence at the crime scene matches the name Patrick Jennings – one of the aliases Simpkins uses. Now, Thorne things Simpkins may be involved in this murder, and that he’ll be able arrest him for more than fraud.
With today’s technology, many scammers and grifters have ‘gone digital.’ It gives them better anonymity and a much broader reach. Those scams take many forms, so it’s just as well to be cautious about online dealings. Of course, online scammers can be vulnerable, too, as we see in Charles Stross’ Rule 34. Detective Inspector (DI) Liz Kavanaugh is head of Edinburgh’s Innovative Crimes Investigation Team. That group’s task is to search out potential crime on the Internet. It’s hardly an elite position, but in one plot thread, the team finds itself involved in a major case when Internet spammer Michael Blair is killed. His death is soon linked to other deaths of Internet con artists and spammers, and Kavanaugh and her team are charged with finding out who’s responsible.
Online, onground, or in print, scammers and grifters are a part of the criminal landscape. So it’s little wonder that they’re also a part of crime fiction. Their stories don’t always end happily, but they can be very interesting characters. Which have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket Or Two.