Con artist stories have always held an outsized position in pop culture, but in 2022, they’re really having a moment. No matter which streaming service or network you’re watching, there’s a grifter story ready for binging. Hulu has The Dropout, starring Amanda Seyfried as disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, and Netflix has Inventing Anna with Julia Garner as faux heiress Anna Delvey. Then there’s The Thing About Pam on NBC, featuring Renée Zellweger as a woman who murdered at least one person to collect on a life insurance policy. And if you’re looking for the “true” version of events, queue up The Tinder Swindler, Bad Vegan, The Vow, LuLaRich, or any number of other documentaries and miniseries.
Critics and sociologists have long tried to explain the public’s fascination with grifters, who are usually nonviolent but still very much criminals. Is it because con artists are so often charming and charismatic? Or are people responding to the Robin Hood element in many of these stories—stealing from the rich and giving to the … less rich? No one has come up with a definitive answer, but in the meantime, crack open one of these con artist books and try to determine the appeal for yourself.
Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of a Real Fake by Frank W. Abagnale
Even before Steven Spielberg adapted this book into a critically acclaimed film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, Catch Me If You Can was a classic of the con-man genre. In this partly fictionalized account of his youth, Frank W. Abagnale claims to have passed more than $2.5 million worth of bad checks while posing as a lawyer, pilot, doctor and other professions for which he had no qualifications. The veracity of many—if not all—of his claims have since come into question, but the book remains a page-turning tale of deception.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith’s novel is a work of fiction, but no list of books about con artists would be complete without it. Tom Ripley is a small-time crook who agrees to go to Italy to retrieve Dickie Greenleaf, the wealthy son of a shipping magnate. At first, Tom’s charms seem innocent, but his relationship with Dickie soon turns obsessive—and dangerous. The Talented Mr. Ripley was also made into an excellent film starring Jude Law and Matt Damon, but nothing can beat Highsmith’s chilling prose.
The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by David W. Maurer
If The Talented Mr. Ripley is the essential con artist novel of the 20th century, then The Big Con is the essential nonfiction book. Originally published in 1940, The Big Con is David W. Maurer’s wide-ranging study of grifters—their methods, their slang, and their motives. Maurer was a linguist by trade, so this is definitely the one to read if you’re looking to expand your vocabulary of old-timey words for swindling.
Confident Women: Swindlers, Grifters, and Shapeshifters of the Feminine Persuasion by Tori Telfer
Rather than focus on just one huckster, Confident Women takes a look at a whole slew of con artists, all of them women. Author Tori Telfer includes chapters on Margaret Lydia Burton, who stole 40 show dogs in the 1900s, and Loreta Janeta Vasquez, who posed as a soldier fighting for both sides in the Civil War. She also tackles one of the most popular ruses of the early 20th century: pretending to be Anastasia, the long-lost Russian duchess.
Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock
Most books about con artists include a “stranger than fiction” element, and Charlatan is no exception. Pope Brock tells the story of John R. Brinkley, an American con man who made his fortune selling a quack cure for male impotence that involved goat testicles. That’s just the beginning, though—by 1930, Brinkley had so effectively established himself as a pillar of the community that he almost got elected governor of Kansas.
My Friend Anna: The True Story of a Fake Heiress by Rachel DeLoache Williams
Anna Delvey, née Sorokin, became one of the modern era’s most famous con artists in 2018 when New York magazine published an account of her fraudulent exploits, which included pretending to be a Russian heiress and stiffing luxury hotels for tens of thousands of dollars. My Friend Anna is a firsthand account from one of Delvey’s victims: Rachel DeLoache Williams, a former Vanity Fair photo editor who got scammed out of more than $62,000 during a trip to Marrakech.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Bad Blood isn’t about conning an individual, but rather pulling the wool over the eyes of an entire industry. Theranos was a healthcare startup founded by seeming wunderkind Elizabeth Holmes, who claimed that the company had revolutionized blood testing by achieving results with just a finger prick. Spoiler alert: they couldn’t. John Carreyrou’s book is a deep dive into how Theranos and Holmes pulled off their ruse and what toppled the entire house of cards. (Holmes was found guilty of defrauding investors in January 2022 and is currently awaiting sentencing.)
Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel
For those interested in niche conning, look no further than Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Lee Israel’s memoir of the time she spent forging letters by dead literary giants including Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. After sufficiently honing her craft, she started stealing real artifacts from libraries and replacing them with her own forgeries—some of which were so convincing that they continued to circulate after she was discovered and convicted of conspiracy.
King Con: The Bizarre Adventures of the Jazz Age’s Greatest Impostor by Paul Willetts
Paul Willetts tells the bonkers story of Edgar Laplante, a charming Vaudeville performer who left behind the disappointing world of showbiz to reinvent himself as Chief White Elk, a totally fake Cherokee leader who also happened to be a war hero and civil rights activist. Laplante kept up the Chief White Elk act for years, eventually taking it to Europe, where he fell in with a Hungarian heiress who funded him on a rip-roaring trip through Italy.
Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood
Plenty of movies and TV shows have featured story lines where a character fakes their own death, but this book details the steps real people take to wipe themselves off the map. Elizabeth Greenwood takes a potentially grim subject and makes it fun, exploring the difficulties of staging a death by drowning and revealing the various methods one can use to obtain empty coffins and unidentified bodies.
The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
Herman Melville’s final novel is set aboard the Fidèle, a steamship traveling down the Mississippi River in 1857. Taking place over the course of a single day, the satirical book follows the titular grifter as he attempts to scam his fellow passengers using various tall tales and disguises. His tricks don’t earn him a ton of money, though, so readers are left to wonder why he’s doing this in the first place—and what exactly he gets from his games.
The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust by Diana B. Henriques
The name Bernie Madoff is likely familiar to anyone with a passing interest in con artists, but the scope of his crimes may have faded from memory in the years since his 2008 arrest. Diana B. Henriques, the New York Times journalist who led the paper’s coverage of the story from day one, explains how Madoff pulled off his $65 billion Ponzi scheme using court filings and eyewitness accounts—and interviews with the man himself.
The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time by Maria Konnikova
In The Confidence Game, Maria Konnikova—a writer with a PhD in psychology—dissects various cons to explain how victims fell for them and what keeps us coming back even when we’re a little suspicious. Konnikova also examines the similarities between famous con artists and delves into the methods they used to swindle their unsuspecting marks.
Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo
You don’t need to know anything about the art world to appreciate Provenance, which explores the truly mind-boggling story of how a con man and a struggling artist teamed up to create more than 200 forged paintings that fooled some of the world’s best curators. Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo write like they’re crafting a page-turning thriller, and they are—and it all really happened.
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