Out of print for three decades, David Maurer’s legendary 1940 excavation of the con artist’s world has been reprinted with a zippy new introduction courtesy of Luc Sante, who’s prowled these same alleys with distinction. Fortunately, it hasn’t dated much. (Footnotes explaining period references and a list of recommended films depicting cons would have made nice perks, however.) A linguist at the University of Louisville who died in 1981, Maurer spent his career recording the argot of moonshiners and pickpockets, but this is his masterwork. Rife with such Runyon-esque personages as the Sanctimonious Kid, Ocean-Liner Al, and Limehouse Chappie, The Big Con reeks of 10,000 conversations in poolrooms and Pullman cars; its sentences ring with the raffish patois of ’20s and ’30s Americans on the move. “I’d sooner be a lamster any day than be tied up to a lop-eared mark,” grouses one sharpie stuck with simpleminded prey.
Mined extensively by Jim Thompson and David Mamet and plundered by The Sting, this book is a treasure trove for connoisseurs of dishonesty. Maurer’s grifter pals, with whom he nurtured extended relationships (several of them served as expert readers of the manuscript), school us in the ABCs of conning: which nationalities not to cheat, why Indiana is the seat of grifter culture, the history behind and lowbrow allure of three-card monte. Maurer breaks grifts down by size and strategy, revealing along the way how easily denizens of the Big Apple can be swindled. The New Yorker, one Broadway rounder explains, “is the best sucker that ever was born. He is made to order for anything. . . . He loves to be taken because he’s wise.”
Have things changed? “The con man,” Maurer writes, “approaches a mark with the old story that he needs an honest man to finance a dishonest project.” Search the Web under “Get Rich Quick” and see for yourself: when will that prospect ever lose its appeal?