Con You Top This? 
March 14, 2007

Is there a reader of mystery fiction or film aficionado who doesn't like a caper story? The meticulous planning of each detail, finding the right people to fulfill the roles needed to pull off the sting, and, of course, locating the key player in the whole scheme, the mark, are fascinating.

The major difference between a caper and a con is that the victim of a perfectly planned robbery (a caper) is generally an innocent person, museum, bank, or jewelry store, while the target of a con tends to be someone with a desire to profit from an illegal scheme but whose own greed blinds him to the fact that he has been set up.

Matthew Klein has just produced an outstanding con game novel, though the definition of "game" might not be the same as what we have learned in our lives. "Con Ed" (Warner, 285 pages, $23.99) is the story of an elaborate con, much like the great Paul Newman/Robert Redford film, "The Sting."

One of the charms of " Con Ed" is that several chapters open with explanations of small cons you know, the sort of thing anyone could manage if he had the brains, the courage, and that nasty little streak of larceny that resides in everyone except you and me:

But this is a big con, and that's altogether different.

This is the problem with a Big Con, if you must know. It requires months of preparation. A Big Con cannot be run alone, and so it requires that you build a team of capable people. It requires that you work together, know each member of your team intimately, that you are able to predict each other's every move. It requires, in short, that you trust each other. But what kind of people can you ask to run a con with you? Quite simply, dishonest people. Which is the problem. How can you trust someone to watch your back, when you're secretly afraid of what they do behind it?

A big con also requires a fairly substantial amount of seed money. In " Con Ed," that is $6 million borrowed from the Russian mafia. The deal is that the protagonist has two months to pay back $12 million. If he fails, he and his son will be induced to drink acid, which makes for a serious incentive for the con to work.

To back up to the beginning: Kip Largo has recently been released from prison after serving five years when an honest (sort of ) business idea went awry. He has made the firm, if difficult, decision to go straight, taking a job in a dry cleaning store for $10 an hour.

Out of nowhere, a gorgeous young woman picks him up in a bar and asks him to swindle her husband out of a lot of money, for which she will pay him $100,000. Although both she and the money are seductive, so is the notion of freedom. He declines in favor of the honest life. Almost as if on cue, his son comes to him in a panic, saying he owes some very bad men $60,000. He asks if he can borrow the amount, incorrectly assuming that cash has been stashed from the scheme that got his father into the slammer. When he can't come up with any money, the young man is beaten and his leg broken.

What's a father to do? He accepts the woman's offer and begins to concoct a plot.

At one point, his ex-wife visits the apartment Largo shares with his son, Toby, and she warns him, "Don't do anything stupid."

"I'm not exactly sure what she means by this," he muses, "but it's hard to object. It seems like a good rule to live your life by."

As with all good capers and con games, the author is always a few moves ahead of the reader, just as the hero should always be ahead of his mark. As the pieces of Largo's brilliant scheme fit together into the jigsaw puzzle, everything goes wrong. Part of the plan, of course. When it happens again, it is a challenge for him to maintain balance, not sure whether these little bumps in the road (a solid beating, a murder) are part of the plan, too.

Let's hope that it is part of Matthew Klein's plan to pull off some more cons.

Mr. Penzler is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and the series editor of the annual "Best American Mystery Stories." He can be reached at


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