I recently published a novel entitled The Con Man's Son, but I've just discovered a book which is apparently an important source of information on the type of criminal called a "confidence man."
First published in 1940, it offers a detailed study of con artists and their trade based on extensive interviews with practitioners.
It gives a historical survey of how simple street games like three-card monte developed into more elaborate "long cons" requiring establishment of a "store," a rented space set up to look like a betting parlor or stock brokerage.
There are also chapters on the crooks themselves, their social norms, the psychology of their victims, their cooperative relationships with law enforcement, and more.
Since the author was a linguist, the book makes use of the con-man's vocabulary ("rope a mark," "cop a heel," "steer against a store," etc.) and a glossary is provided.
I have no doubt The Big Con was a source for another book I have consulted, The Confidence Game. And anyone familiar with The Sting will recognize pages 31 through 52 as a description of the game operated by Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) and Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford).
More and more I am convinced that when writing fiction, it's helps to know the facts.
"Kluge" is word used by engineers to describe "a clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem." It's a gadget that works but is overly complicated and inefficient and prone to breakdowns. Psychologist Gary Marcus uses this word to describe the human brain.
Marcus cites many experiments in psychology to demonstrate the brain's malfunctions. For instance, if we are told something is true, we tend to see only evidence that proves it and ignore evidence that would disprove it. Similarly people who are told to go room 756 and guess the number of beans in a jar will guess higher than people told to go to room 110. These and other quirks are explained by the physical structure of the brain.
I've been reading books by psychologists recently. You can find my reviews under "Writing" on this blog. One of those books, The Confidence Man by Maria Konnikova, provided some research for The Con Man's Son.
I don't often read memoirs, but this one hooked me right from the start. Greene was not allowed to apply for employment as a state trooper because "it's not a job for a woman" (this was in the 1960s). She follows the path of wife and mother, but becomes an investigator by volunteering for search-and-rescue teams.
Her struggle to have a personal life runs through the book and adds a moving dimension to her effort to achieve expertise in her chosen specialty, finding missing persons. As she progresses from volunteer to assistant to licensed private investigator, we learn along with her about this surprisingly quirky field.
For instance, there appears not to be a legal definition of "missing." Therefore law officers will not spring into action just because you say your spouse/child/friend is missing. Whether it's a wilderness rescue, a custody dispute, or an unexplained disappearance, there are patterns in these kinds of cases. Missing children are usually found downhill from where they were last seen. Suicides are usually found uphill.
Read it for the introduction to a peculiar profession. Read it for the story of a strong woman who insisted on having a career spanning the 1970s and 1980s. For either or both, it's a good read, much thanks to co-author Gary Provost,
Psychologist Maria Konnikova spent a year learning to play poker, specifically Texas Hold 'em. Why? Because, it is the game that most closely models real life. Some games depend entirely on skill---chess, for instance. Some games depend entirely on chance---matching coin flips, for instance. Texas Hold 'em balances skill and chance.
In her research as a psychologist Konnikova studies decision-making. She wanted to know how professional players decide when to bet, call, check, hold 'em and fold 'em. She met the guys with degrees in math and charts full of statistics. They're not the ones who win. She met the guys who psych out the other players. They win sometimes. The big winners focus on how they make decisions and how they perceive chance.
Her interest was not purely academic. She read the fundamental books for players and apprenticed with a top professional player. She staked herself, started with online poker, played some small tournaments in off-the-strip clubs in Las Vegas and worked her way up to international tournaments with the best of the best.
This book may seem a little off my subject---Dark Stories. But, like Konnikova's previous book, it is research for my dark stories. When I read The Confidence Game, I didn't know I was going to write a book with the title, The Con Man's Son. Similarly, I don't know that I'll write a book about professional poker players. Probably not, in fact. But I will be writing about characters who make decisions.
I participated in the Book Bazaar at the Mechanics' Institute Library. I must say it felt good to see the four Nicole Tang Noonan Mysteries all together on the table. I sold a couple of books and learned a lot from readers. One frequent question: Where are they set?
"Mechanics" has become my literary community. For four years I've participated in writers' critique groups that meet there, attended talks by authors, and hung out at events like this. I've done most of the research for my mysteries at this library. I also enjoy readers' groups for mysteries and short stories.
As many have said, writing is a solitary activity, and I treasure that time by myself, but I need to come up for air a few times a month. There's nothing like getting to know other writers who are at the same stage I'm at and comparing notes on what's working and what's not.
The Mechanics' Institute Library has been around since the Gold Rush days, when its name was accurate. It was founded to teach people skilled trades. After about 20 years, it became a general interest library. This was before San Francisco had free public libraries.
It has always been a subscription library, and remains so today. For about the price of a years' subscription to a newspaper, all this is yours. And, yes, when I go there, everybody knows my name.
Everyone found out who Bernie Madoff is in 2008 when he was arrested by the FBI and charged with securities fraud. It is estimated he stole $18 billion through a Ponzi scheme he operated for at least twenty years.
He certainly wasn't the first infamous confidence man. In 2002, Steven Spielberg released Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, who stole millions while pretending to be an airline pilot, a doctor, and ironically a prosecutor.
There have been other high profile cons, but, as Maria Konnikova writes, most scams "are never because prosecuted because they are never detected." Apparently the true con artist not only creates a story to separate the victim from his money, but also creates a story to leave him thinking it was all bad luck.
Her book contains plenty of documented examples, but her analysis of who commits these crimes, how they do it, and why is most fascinating. It seems the typical scam artist is psychopathic (lacking empathy), narcissistic (entitled), and Machiavellian (scheming). Add to this genetic predisposition circumstances in life that provide motive and opportunity, and you have a confidence man.
The portrait of evil is compelling and seems to apply to other types of criminals as well.
I volunteered to staff the table for the Mechanics' Institute Library at The San Francisco Writers' Conference this weekend. It was fun. Along with telling conference-goers about the library, I got to chat with them about their writing and mine.
Being there had an extra resonance for me. The SFWC was the first writers' conference I attended after retiring from academic life and starting to write mysteries.
It is a supermarket-style conference, covering everything from poetry to genre fiction, with journalism, and literary fiction along the way. It offers everything from how-to-write sessions to how-to-promote consultations. I got a good sense of what was going in the world of writers.
At SFWC, I met and talked with a fellow writer about my wish to join a writers' group. That writer told me the Mechanics Institute Library hosts groups for writers.
Four years later the Mechanics' has become my literary home. I've been in a mystery writers' group for three-and-a-half years, and have participated in many other writerly activities, including Writers' Lunch, every third Friday.
Representing the Mechanics' at SFWC reminded me of something I heard recently from fellow writer Ethel Rohan. Writers must be in community with other writers. One must be a good literary citizen. Hear, hear!
As I prepare the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery for publication, I am thinking about how the series will sell on Amazon. For one thing, the books must look good when shoppers use the "Look Inside" feature.
That means the potential reader must see Nicole discover the murder at the end of about twenty pages. With this in mind, I checked my new book and saw the murder was discovered on page thirty-one.
So I picked up my pen and marked everything that could possibly be removed from those pages or postponed until later in the story. I found that by doing so I could make the murder visible in "Look Inside."
I don't mind rewriting for the sake of marketing. Writers have always had to do so, especially writers of genre fiction.
By the way, traditionally there is no hard and fast rule about when the murder must be discovered. Agatha Christie puts the murder on page forty of The Murder at the Vicarage. Of course, she wasn't publishing on Amazon.
At my library the other day, I was working on publication of the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery (more on that later this month). I needed to be sure about the physical dimensions of the book, but I hadn't brought a copy with me.
Then I remembered the library has a copy in its collection, so I went downstairs to the second floor where fiction is shelved alphabetically by author. After scanning past "Hoffman" and "Holmes," I came to where "Homan" should be and found . . . "Hopper."
After wondering why my book wasn't on the shelf, I ran to the catalogue, looked up "Dark Mural," and discovered it is "Due 01-18-19." It's checked out. Someone is reading it. The first Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, published last September and placed in the collection shortly after, continues to attract readers.
I know this is what we expect books in libraries to do, but this was the first time I became aware of my book doing it.
Last fall I was thrilled every time someone emailed a photo of paperback copies of Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit, along with the padded envelope they arrived in.
I've been thrilled every time someone tells me they got the ebooks.
I've been over the moon when someone says they stayed up late to finish one of the books so they could find out who done it.
Compliments and favorable reviews on Amazon are great, and it's nice to sell copies. But the real thrill is just knowing that people are reading them.
"Where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping downhill into Chinatown, Spade paid his fare and left the taxicab." This is Dashiell Hammett's description of Sam Spade arriving at the scene where the body of his partner, Miles Archer, has been found in The Maltese Falcon.
In this photo, we are looking north on Stockton Street, through the tunnel. Bush Street runs across what looks like a bridge. Thus "Bush Street roofed Stockton."
Before the tunnel was opened in 1914, Stockton street rose steeply up one side of Nob Hill and ran down the other side. The part of Stockton the crests the hill can still be seen at the top of the photo. The original purpose of the tunnel was to create a level roadway for street cars.
The scene continues: "Spade crossed the sidewalk . . . went to the parapet, and resting his hands on the damp coping, looked down into Stockton Street." Sam Spade would have been standing at what looks like a stone fence on the bridge, facing in our direction, looking down.
"An automobile popped out of the tunnel beneath him, with a roaring swish, as if it had been blown out, and ran away." The white van in the photo did what Hammett is describing seconds before I snapped the shutter.
The scene changes as, "Spade turned from the parapet and walked up Bush Street to the alley where men were grouped.." That is, he walked to the left, as we view the scene. Today, at the mouth of that alley there is a brass plaque marking it as the place where, "______ shot Miles Archer." The plaque actually names the murderer. I refuse to do so.
The pages describing Spade's actions at the murder scene give much more detail about stairways, railings, buildings, and other details of this intersection. Obviously, Dashiell Hammett, who lived in San Francisco when he wrote The Maltese Falcon, walked this intersection and took detailed notes for this scene.
Somewhere I read that Elmore Leonard said, "I write about Detroit because I live in Detroit. If I lived in Buffalo, I'd write about Buffalo." Lessons from the masters.
When James M. Cain published The Butterfly in 1946, he added a preface. Perhaps he did so because it was a novella, about half the length of a novel, and he needed to bulk up the book.
Whatever the reason, this preface gives us glimpses into his life as a writer.
He talks about his travels in Harlan County, Kentucky and how meeting people and working alongside them in the mines and elsewhere gave him the desire to write a story about them. This sounds more like immersion than research.
He says writing for newspapers prepared him to approach a subject this way, and he praises other forms of writing as useful to becoming a novelist.
He disagrees with critics who compared him to Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway, and goes on at some length to distinguish his writing from theirs.
Most surprisingly, he distances himself from "the picture business," denying accusations that he writes with adaptation for movies in mind. Coming from the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, this is surprising, especially since several other works were adapted and he worked for a time as a screenwriter.
I've blogged about books by novelists that mix practical writing advice with memoir: Patricia Highsmith, Lawrence Block, Stephen King. I enjoy these because they teach me not only how they wrote, but what it was like to live through it. This preface by Cain is a miniature version of those books.
I grew up going to a library and taking notes for my school reports. I thought I was doing this simply to gather information, but there was something else going on.
Coin-operated photocopy machines showed up when I was in college. Instead of taking notes, I made copies and highlighted them. I thought this was more efficient.
The World-Wide Web came along, and I started cutting-and-pasting and downloading. Later I started bookmarking web pages. This seemed like a super-efficient way to gather information.
As my browser's list of bookmarks got longer, I had lots of information at my fingertips, but I found it harder and harder to use it.
Recently I decided to slow down the information-gathering and take notes . . . longhand . . . in a notebook.
I'm finding this very satisfying. It takes time and effort to read a blog post, for instance, and decide which parts to write down verbatim, which parts to summarize, and which to ignore. I become very selective because It takes even more time and effort to write the note or quotation in my notebook.
When I take notes, I not only gather information, I also think about it. I move some of it from short-term memory into long-term memory, and somewhere in my brain I must be connecting the new information with things I already know. Now I'm ready to use it when I want to write something new.
I see now that all that photocopying, highlighting, cutting-and-pasting, downloading, and bookmarking was only postponing this process. Some things you just can't automate.
Last weekend we went to our favorite place for breakfast. When I was done eating, I looked across the street and noticed the morning light was beautiful on the buildings and the tree.
I started snapping, noticed people were walking by, and managed to catch the woman in the baseball cap in front of the red doorway.
When I got this picture up on my computer screen, I noticed there was a second woman just stepping out of the shadows on the right. She wears a headscarf and carries a yoga mat.
Baseball Cap is wearing yoga pants, so maybe she is walking to a class at the place Headscarf has just left. But Baseball Cap doesn't have a yoga mat. Maybe she's going to another kind of exercise class.
Of course, Headscarf could be carrying that yoga mat as a distraction. She might have been hiding in that dark doorway, waiting for Baseball Cap to walk by, intent on attacking her.
If so, she has a problem. Again, when I got the photo up on my computer, I noticed Baseball Cap is not alone. Look just behind her front foot and you'll see another foot. Someone is walking next to her.
Did Baseball Cap get word that headscarf was laying for her and bring backup?
As Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."
I saw this stairway and liked it so much I had to take its picture.
It's in the Metreon, a building in downtown San Francisco where Ann and I had gone to see a movie. The wall of green outside the windows is the edge of Yerba Buena Gardens, a lovely place to linger if you're ever in town.
It reminds me of the one in the Museum of the African Diaspora, which (come to think of it) is only one block away.
Stairways like this are not hard to like especially for a guy who prefers to take the stairs and counts himself lucky in being able to do so.
But for me, they are more than just pretty. They are somehow theatrical. When walking on them, I see people outside the building and they can see me. I feel exposed, but somehow aloof at the same time.
Such a stairway might serve well for an important scene in a story. A pursuer (sleuth or assassin) might spot the pursued. The pursued might feel safe from the pursuer, but only if he can get to a higher floor and hide.
Hmm . . .
Recently I discovered that reading my book in Kindle Direct Publishing's ebook previewer taught me some lessons I hadn't learned by reading and re-reading my book in a word processor and on paper. Specifically I learned to use paragraph breaks in a new way for e-publishing.
Preparing my book for publication as a paperback has yielded still more lessons. Perhaps because throughout my life I've done most of my reading on single-spaced, facing pages, I never had to think of how the eye and the mind work together to turn those ink-blots into images and thoughts.
I've been over Dark Mural so many times in the past two years, I have parts of it memorized. Yet, when I saw it in the familiar form of a printed book, it looked different and read different. I became aware how parts of a scene fit together and raised questions that would be answered on the following page. In a few instances, I saw how the scene could be better built, and I've made changes.
Of course, most writers say they always want to change things, even after a book is published. So perhaps this was just one more opportunity for me to see such things. But I really don't think I would have seen them without reading it in book form.