Five Good Liars: a list by Nicholas Searle
Let’s face it, we all love the con artist. The likeable rogue, the cheerful chappy, the perpetrator of the apparently victimless crime. The acceptable face of lawlessness.
Hollywood in particular is fond of the trickster. Consider, if you will, this list: American Hustle, Catch Me If You Can, Ocean’s Eleven (Twelve, Thirteen) The Thomas Crown Affair, Paper Moon, The Grifters, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Sting, The Hustler, A Fish Called Wanda - they all feature scams and scammers of various hues. All rather loveable, they are, too. Argo features government-paid suits whose job it is to cook up wild and wonderful but fully authorised scams on behalf of the rest of us mere citizens. Nice work if you can get it; an index-linked pension at the end too.
There’s even a worthy area of academic study into the preponderance of female con-artists in the movies of the early 1940s, a development from the female characters in earlier screwball comedies to something more substantial and dangerous. Barbara Stanwyck seems to feature a lot and there is, seemingly, a direct line to be drawn to the femmes fatales of later noir movies, where endearing artfulness turns into something altogether more menacing.
You can, of course, trace a long tradition here. Picaresque works of fiction – the tales of rogues living on their wits in corrupt societies – can be traced back to Spain in the sixteenth century and it only takes a short glance at Shakespeare’s plays to see the role deception played in his work: at times malign and menacing, at others with noble or at least morally defensible ends, sometimes, as in Twelfth Night, rather more playful.
The con, and deception more widely, are, then, a fertile area of exploration by writers of various forms of fiction. The novel too is far from free from those crafty scoundrels we love to love, or better still love to hate, as they navigate their perilous routes on thin ice and we wait for the unravelling of their plans, hoping, we find, that they make it through in the end. It’s arguable, and not stretching a point too far I think, that the central appeal of Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s wonderful novels is not so much the power play as the subtlety and finesse of the numerous deceptions and economies of the truth he must keep in play at the same time, some of them seemingly contradictory, as he seeks to back all the possible winners.
Why? I think there’s a simple answer to this question. Whether the writer is seeking to shock, intrigue or amuse with a con-trickster character, she or he is describing a key feature of the human condition and mining something central to our psyches and insecurities. How can I be sure I’m not being deceived? And of course there is another con being perpetrated under our very eyes, albeit a benevolent one, we hope: the author is drawing a veil of illusion over us, hoping that despite it being explicit that this is all made-up the reader might in some small fashion believe.
Here are five of my favourite deceivers in fiction (in no particular order):
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