Can you always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style? I won't fault Luc Sante's taste in old-time criminal lore. The author of the New York classic Low Life claims that "swindling seems to awaken in its perpetrators a gift for vigorous, highly colored language, with accompanying deadpan humor." Yet three decades' wrongdoing is not by definition more fascinating than a lifetime spent adjusting insurance claims. An endless recitation of banks robbed or suckers taken may establish the bona fides of the crook in question. But at some point you may find that the details hold all the intrinsic interest of the minutes to a PTA meeting.
Hence the initial challenge faced by the first entries that Sante has selected for Broadway Books' nostalgic true-crime series, the Library of Larceny: Why should we read about long-dead criminals?
The real antecedent of these books is Herbert Asbury's classic 1928 Gangs of New York, a semi-mythologized recounting of the misdeeds of 19th-century Dead Rabbits and Bowery Boys. Writing at the peak of a crime wave that notoriously featured one Chicago gangster challenging another to a duel at high noon on State Street, Asbury offered his readers the pleasure of thinking that it had always been so. Treating untold stories and marginal people as significant figures, he consciously wrote history in the wrong direction.
These first few Library of Larceny books do not muster quite that sense of subversion. Still, Sante knows whereof he speaks: At their best, these crime confessionals tell funny, sharp-eyed tales from the wrong side of the street.
J.T. Weil was, from all accounts, a force of endlessly creative dishonesty and invention, capable of separating money from pockets at will. It was as if he exerted a private gravitational force. His 1948 memoir, Con Man: A Master Swindler's Own Story, is a classic American tale of self-making. Born to "reputable, hard-working people" in Chicago, Weil quit school at 17, realizing that "more money was being made by skullduggery than by honest toil."
And that's as much moral struggle as he seemed to register, a circumstance that may strike you as either endearingly roguish or sociopathic. Next thing we know, he's scouring the countryside with a partner, pitching snake oil and selling rubes subscriptions to "the unexcelled journal of rural life, Hearth and Home," the real swindle being the worthless spoons and cheap glasses he fobbed off on them for three dollars.
Later, he got unpatriotic suckers to buy alleged German bonds during World War I; invented the boiler room; pulled scams using pianos, coffee, and dice; and even fell for the well-worn "Spanish Prisoner" con while aboard a ship. It was a busy life. From his very first missteps, Weil practiced misdirection, getting marks to empty their pockets while entrancing them with something entirely different. His memoir pulls the same trick: Nursing an almost Victorian reticence about what he did with all of his money, he rarely lets on how much fun he was having.
Reading Willie Sutton's engaging memoir Where the Money Was will certainly equip you to rob any 1930s-vintage bank that you come across, as well as escape from the prisons into which you will doubtless be thrown. Sutton accomplished both these feats repeatedly. Avowedly not a folk hero ("I wasn't trying to make the world better for anyone except myself"), Sutton nevertheless became a working stiff's Robin Hood. And his unflashy, consistently entertaining storytelling helps us understand how.
Pool hustler Danny McGoorty, by contrast, is no one's idea of a good friend. In Robert Byrne's biography, he's relentlessly piggish around women ("I was seventeen years old before I was able to get my finger wet enough to turn a page"), drunk half the time, and usually out of dough. But he never stops scuffling, even when bumming a ride on the rails from Chicago to San Francisco. He lays out one authentically low-life truth after another: "Why do people feel so bad when they lose a job? I always celebrated with a few drinks. When you get a job, that's when you should have the long face."
Saving the best for last, A.J. Liebling's Telephone Booth Indian is the one to buy immediately. Liebling's cast of scammers, wrestling promoters, freak-show proprietors, and general heels scrabbled around the corners of 1930s Times Square, "promoting" dollars from gullible country clergymen and holding court in cigar stores and phone booths.
Liebling adored the promo-speak these men came out with, and he lets them play. "The best ad for our show," says one, "is the number of people who collapse or imagine they have delirium tremens after seeing it."
Liebling himself could turn a phrase, perhaps most memorably when remarking that the typical expression of the rental agent in a building full of scammers "has been compared, a little unfairly, to that of a dead robin." The surge and wit of his prose is matched only by the ceaseless hunger of his protagonists for another dollar to blow at the track.
In the wake of the global bamboozlements of Enron and WorldCom, getting away with a mere $90,000, like Liebling's most prodigious scammers, seems a positive act of charity. Still, I shudder to imagine the future world in which readers turn to Bloods vs. Crips for a little nostalgic distraction.