As this is posted, it’s 43 years since the first release of George Roy Hill’s The Sting. It’s become a classic film – the story of a couple of professional grifters and their plot to take down a mob boss. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly.
If you look at crime fiction, there are plenty of other examples of criminals who are taken down, not by the police, but by one of their own, or one of their victims. It’s an interesting premise, and when it’s done well, it can be very effective. That’s especially true if, as is the case with The Sting, the protagonist is depicted sympathetically.
Of course, it’s easy to paint protagonists in a sympathetic light when they’re sleuths. That’s what happens in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. Lady Eva Brackwell is being blackmailed by Milverton, who makes his living that way. It seems that she had written letters – the type that used to be called ‘indiscreet’ – and Milverton got his hands on them. Now, he’s threatening to reveal them to Lady Eva’s fiancé, the Earl of Dovercourt, unless she pays a huge sum of money. She asks Sherlock Holmes for help, and he agrees to take the case. When Milverton refuses to return the letters, Holmes decides to break into his home (with Dr. Watson’s help) and take the letters. Things don’t turn out exactly the way he’d planned, though. It seems that another of Milverton’s ‘clients’ has her own way of dealing with the situation…
Bill Pronzini’s The Snatch is the first of his novels featuring his Nameless detective. In this story, Nameless gets a commission from wealthy Louis Martinetti. It seems that Martinetti’s son, Gary, has been kidnapped. The ransom is to be delivered to a certain place, and by one and only one person. Martinetti wants Nameless to be that person. At first, Nameless demurs, saying that the Martinetti would be better off going to the police. But he finally agrees. For one thing, Martinetti says that Gary will be killed if the police are involved. And a fee is a fee. The next day, Nameless picks up the ransom money and takes it to the appointed place. His role is supposed to be limited to handing over the cash. But everything changes when, as the saying goes, all hell breaks loose at the drop-off point. Someone else apparently had other plans. Now, Nameless has decide what he’s going to do. In the end, we find out what happened to Gary, and what’s behind it all. I can say without spoiling the story that it’s an interesting case of manipulating people who don’t really know they’re being manipulated.
Fans of Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder series will know that, although Dortmunder isn’t exactly law-abiding, he is a sympathetic protagonist. In The Hot Rock, Dortmunder has just been released from prison. He’s planning to ‘go straight,’ but his friend, Andy Kelp, has other ideas. He tells Dortmunder that Major Patrick Iko, the U.N. Ambassador from the small country of Talabwo, wants to hire Dortmunder and Kelp for a heist. The target is a valuable emerald that is claimed by Talabwo, but is currently the property of another country, Akinsi. Iko wants that emerald, and is willing to pay well for it. Dortmunder assembles a team, and they plan the job. It doesn’t go as intended, though, and now, the team has to go up against several obstacles, including some people who don’t exactly ‘play nice’ themselves…
There’s an interesting example of ‘small-timers’ trying to get the best of a bigger player in Patricia Melo’s The Body Snatcher. A former telemarketer and sales representative from São Paulo has settled in the small town of Corumbá. He settles in, and begins a relationship with Sulamita, an administrative assistant to the local police. One day, the (unnamed) narrator happens to see a small plane crash into a nearby river. He rushes to the scene, and discovers that the pilot is beyond any help. He takes the pilot’s backpack and watch and leaves the scene. Later, he discovers that the backpack is filled with cocaine. The drugs are worth plenty of money, so the narrator decides to partner up with a friend and sell them as a one-time opportunity to make some cash. Things go well until the partners discover that the drug dealers they’ve gone into business with were also working with the dead pilot. The gangsters believe that the narrator and his partner have stolen their drugs, and they want their money back. Now, the narrator has to come up with a plan to get the money and get the better of these drug dealers. It’s a strange plan, but it just might work. At least, that’s what the narrator thinks.
Sophie Littlefield’s A Bad Day For Sorry introduces readers to Stella Hardesty. She’s the owner of a sewing supply store in small-town Prosper, Missouri. At least, that’s her legitimate business. But she also runs another sort of enterprise. Women who’ve been abused know through word of mouth that they can depend on Stella to help even the score. Stella isn’t a killer-for-hire. But she pays visits to men who’ve abused their wives, and reminds them, in very unpleasant ways, of how they’re supposed to behave. Most of the time, Stella’s clients have no more problems after one of her ‘social calls.’ One day, though, Stella finds out from one her clients, Chrissy Shaw, that Chrissy’s ex-husband, Roy Dean, has disappeared, and probably has her son, Tucker, with him. Chrissy wants her boy back, so, even though Stella works alone as a rule, Chrissy insists on joining in. Together, the two women find out where the boy is, and go up against a much bigger criminal operation. But they have their own resources. And, even though this isn’t a case of conning people, it does involve a couple of small-time people taking down much bigger fish, as the saying goes.
There are plenty of other examples, too, of fictional grifters, con artists, and other criminal who have their own reasons and use their own resources to go up against their own. Sometimes even sleuths take part in the action. These are just a few examples. Over to you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Randy Newman’s You Can’t Fool the Fat Man.