5 Books for Connoisseurs of Con Jobs

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This year, I ended up reading a lot about con jobs — from the mundane to the spectacular. Maybe there’s something in the air?

But let’s be honest — tricksters make for gripping reading.  So here are some books that you might find appropriate for our times:

— “King Con,” by Paul Willetts.

Willets follows the exploits of Edgar Laplante, a Jazz-Age grifter who for years masqueraded as a Native American — first posing as the (real) track star Tom Longboat, and then as the (fictional) “Chief White Elk,” supposedly a tribal leader, war hero and wealthy philanthropist. Most news back then was fairly localized, so Laplante was able to headline cultural performances, court contessas and even take part in fascist rallies — yet still skip town the second anyone figured out he wasn’t quite who (or as rich as) he claimed to be. The cons escalate in audacity and absurdity until Laplante all but walks with kings.

— “Bad Blood,” by John Carreyrou.

This must-read recounts the rise and fall of Theranos Inc., a fraudulent medical-device company that sought to enable single-drop blood testing.  Theranos was a Silicon Valley favorite — an upstart firm trying to solve a seemingly impossible problem, led by a young, charismatic and driven founder. But inside, the company was a joke. Its homebrew machines worked so poorly that Theranos mostly just used devices from other manufacturers instead. But this didn’t stop it from burning through more than $700 million of investors’ cash before it swiftly collapsed and its leaders were charged with fraud.

French takes us to the underworld of Shanghai’s International Settlement during the 1930s and ’40s. Gambling, carousing and intrigue abound — fueled, in no small part, by opium — and this locks two ambitious men in a pact sealed by greed. But who will con whom? You’ll see.

This saga describes one of the most extraordinary deceptions in modern military history: Operation Mincemeat. Montagu, one of the agents involved, explains how before the Allied invasion of Sicily in World War II, British Naval Intelligence crafted a daring ruse. They fabricated one “Captain (Acting Major) William Martin,” attached his identity to a real corpse, and let him wash up onshore in Spain carrying notes obliquely suggesting the Allies intended to invade Greece and Sardinia instead. The message reached the Axis — and the subterfuge was so successful that even two weeks into the invasion, German military leaders still expected an attack in Greece.

In this exquisite novella, Inoue imagines Hara Hosen, a good-but-not-gifted painter who sold counterfeits of the great artist Onuki Keigaku, and eventually went on to mix fireworks in relative ignominy. The melancholy that pervades Hosen’s life forces us to wonder how fraud artists feel when they’re left to their own thoughts. What pictures do they paint of themselves?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Scott Duke Kominers is the MBA Class of 1960 Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and a faculty affiliate of the Harvard Department of Economics. Previously, he was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and the inaugural research scholar at the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago.

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