You’re Just a Two-Bit Grifter*

griftersAs 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.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Bill Pronzini, Donald Westlake, Patricia Melo, Sophie Littlefield

25 responses to “You’re Just a Two-Bit Grifter*

  1. R. T.

    FYI . . . My blogging is going in a different direction at a different address:

    Please join me there.

  2. tracybham

    Margot, I recently read a book of short stories titled Grifters & Swindlers, with a story “The Cackle Bladder” using the same con as the one used in The Sting. And I do love that movie.

  3. mudpuddle

    darn… i was going to cite Dortmunder but you beat me to it… some of those are really funny; the movies, too…

  4. Margot, thanks for mentioning “The Sting,” a film that I’d very much like to see. Your theme reminds me of movie plots than crime fiction; “L.A. Confidential,” for example.

    • L.A. Confidential is a great example of that sort of film, Prashant, so I’m glad you mentioned it. And you reminded me of the work of James Ellroy, who wrote the novel on which that film is based. I really need to turn the spotlight on one of his books. As to The Sting, I do recommend it highly if you ever get the chance to see it.

  5. Tim

    I’m glad you mentioned Doyle’s story. His Holmes stories are on my reading plan (along with Chesterton’s Father Brown stories) for the future. I wonder, though, about other crime/detective/mystery fiction writers who excelled at short stories. Do you and your many readers/followers/commenters have any recommendations?

    • Agatha Christie wrote some terrific short stories, Tim. Admittedly, I am biased. Still, even so, I do think some of her short stories are excellent. Some of Ellery Queen’s short stories are very well-written, too. Folks, what other classic/Golden Age short story writers do you recommend?

      • Tim

        Thanks, Margot. I will look into those authors. Here is a s/s sidebar (i.e., something I discovered while reading about short stories (s/s)): Harold Bloom (in _How to Read and Why_) writes, “How does one read a short story? Edgar Allan Poe would have said: at one sitting. Poe’s stories, despite their permanent worldwide popularity, are atrociously written (as are his poems) and benefit by translation, even into English.” Ouch! Do you (and your followers/commenters) think Bloom is being too harsh? I confess that I agree with him. Poe’s stories — for the most part — are “atrociously written.”

        • You raise an interesting question, Tim, about Poe’s stories. Certainly they have achieved ‘classic’ status, whether one thinks they are well-written, so-so, or worse. And Poe’s style is distinctive, so it won’t appeal to everyone. What do you folks think?

        • mudpuddle

          Tim: i’m prejudiced, as Poe was one of my first literary fascinations when i was young; i still think he was a great writer and imaginist…

        • Tim

          Mudpuddle, even though some people would deny this too simple fact of life, we are all prejudiced in some ways about some things, and personal prejudices in literature (i.e., either rational or irrational likes and dislikes of authors) are to be celebrated and discussed rather than marginalized or silenced; Bloom, I will admit, is a prejudiced critic of Poe, yet I understand his point (i.e., Poe’s prose, pacing, and narrative instincts are sometimes wretched — e.g., “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget”), but I also understand your preference (i.e., some of Poe’s stories are built upon fascinating imaginative premises, and they are worth reading at least for those qualities).

        • Thanks, Tim and Mudpuddle, for this really interesting discussion. Poe isn’t for everyone, and it shows how even the most well-regarded author doesn’t appeal to all readers. And Poe’s work is distinctive enough that people don’t generally feel neutral about it.

  6. When it comes to small-timers taking on criminal big shots, let’s not forget Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, who uses that plot point more than once. For example, in In the Best Families, when Wolfe runs afoul of crime boss Arnold Zeck, Wolfe abandons his house, loses weight, and disguises himself into an apparent small-time thug in order to destroy Zeck and the menace he represents.

    And you could also argue that Wolfe taking on the entire FBI, in The Doorbell Rang, is a case of a small group of (relative) small-timers, Wolfe, Archie and others of the “35th Street Irregulars,” taking on the most powerful (at the time, arguably, dangerously so) organization and most powerful boss (J. Edgar Hoover) and beating him at his own game.

    • You’ve given some great examples, Les, of the way that Nero Wolfe goes up against some very strong opponents. What I like about them is Wolfe’s willingness to do what needs to be done – and even facing off against much stronger (one would think) opponents to do so. I like that sense of confidence that he has. Thanks for reminding us of those examples.

  7. The Sting! What a great movie. I think all of us old enough to see it at the cinema remember the joy of the plot, and the need not to tell spoilers to someone who was going to see it the next night… This year I read a book by a new author, Nicholas Searle, called The Good LIar: it has a conman in it and a very convoluted plot and some very clever ideas.

    • That’s exactly the sort of story I had in mind with this post, Moira, so I’m glad you mentioned it. And yes, The Sting was fantastic. Funny you’d mention that about the spoilers. I remember the first time I saw it in the cinema and was so surprised, because I hadn’t been told what to expect. I’ll always be glad for that. And every time I’ve seen it since, I’ve seen subtle nuances that I didn’t catch other times. It’s that sort of a film, I think.

  8. kathy d

    Yes, Nero Wolfe went up against many powerful men and won. No lack of self-confidence there.
    Now, this topic reminds me of my great-uncle, George Newcomb, who was a bootlegger and a bookie. But he also was a participant in “the sting” upon which the movie is based, a real con game. George had the role of the guy who writes the racing scores on a chalk board.
    I wasn’t born in that period of his life. I knew him as an older, kind man with white hair and twinkly blue eyes. He grieved terribly when his spouse, Fanny,, passed away. I don’t think he ever got over that.

    • Your great-uncle must have had so many stories to tell, Kathy! I’d forgotten (so thanks for the reminder) that the film was based on a real operation. I know what you mean, too, about grieving after losing one’s spouse. I’ve known several people who lost their spouses and never really could move on from that loss.

  9. kathy d

    And my Uncle George’s life was even more complicated than that, but he grieved Fanny’s loss anyway. He treated my father as his son in the 1920s when they did runs in a hearse to Canada to buy contraband liquor. They were going as a family to buy liquor and pretended to be attending a funeral. Oh, the conniving but Inever heard of him being caught.

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