Skip to main content

Conmen and Vagabonds: Caper Stories through Centuries

Is there honor among thieves? Inspired by our last post on Crook Manifesto, Colson Whitehead’s Harlem-set work of fiction, which appeals to all readers of caper stories, let’s take a closer look: what exactly is a caper story?

Cover art

A caper story is very similar to a straight crime story, however, the former is infused with generous doses of humor and witty plot twists. The cheeky but likable characters often fall into the category of confidence men (the origin of the term “conmen”), ranging from the fictional gentleman-burglar, Arsène Lupin in the early 20th century to overly confident female protagonists, who get away with breaking the rules, such as in the books written by Janet Evanovich.

These conmen are highly intelligent, competent, and shrewd. They have the audacity to break the law and pull off crimes (mostly swindles and thefts) in full view, right in front of the reader (and often the authorities), while going through all kinds of unexpected and unrealistic adventures. From the the charming and cunning Felix Krull in Nobel prize winner Thomas Mann’s unfinished novel to Patricia Highsmith’s brilliant but unscrupulous Tom Ripley (listed in another post presenting the many flavors of crime fiction), these lovely young men and women sweet talk their ways into our hearts and charm the socks off the readers of all generations.

Without going into the ethical aspects, if there is a single takeaway from caper stories, we should remember Felix Krull’s statement:  “One should never deceive oneself, especially when it comes to deceiving others.”

Movie posterYou might have seen the movie Catch me if you can, based on real events, a typical caper story with a protagonist outwitting many smart men after him. Television shows such as Leverage and The Republic of Doyle are some of my all-time favorites.

Of course, a good caper story is always placed in the appropriate historical context, often providing a rather enjoyable reading of the era with quite a bit of research behind. To that end, all characters have to be depicted through the use of clichés and stereotypes, creating quite a difficult situation for the author in the long run; just think of Janet Evanovich’s character Lula.

But that’s the topic of another post. Until then, browse the list of titles related to con artists and caper stories available from Rutgers University Libraries below.

Books on caper stories and conmen from Rutgers University Libraries

Ask AI

Conmen of the past would have done even better with AI tools at hand. We asked a popular AI application to “list some famous novels with caper stories and conmen.” Compare the list with our curated list of books from RUL above.

*AI-generated content

Here are some famous novels with caper stories and con men, without reproducing any copyrighted material:

1. “The Sting” by David S. Ward – A classic caper story about two con men who team up to pull off an elaborate sting operation against a powerful crime boss.

2. “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett – A detective novel featuring a convoluted plot involving a valuable statuette and a cast of deceitful characters.

3. “The Grifters” by Jim Thompson – A noir novel centered around a mother and son team of con artists.

4. “Catch Me If You Can” by Frank Abagnale – A biographical novel about the real-life exploits of Frank Abagnale, a master con man and impersonator.

5. “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith – A psychological thriller about a con man who assumes the identity of a wealthy man he admires.

6. “Lies, Inc.” by Philip K. Dick – A science fiction novel revolving around a company that manufactures and sells lies.

7. “The Hustler” by Walter Tevis – A novel about a pool hustler and the underground world of pool hustling and con games.

8. “The Confidence Man” by Herman Melville – A satirical novel following a confidence man who swindles passengers on a Mississippi River boat.

I’ve provided brief descriptions of these notable novels involving con men and caper stories, without reproducing any substantial copyrighted material.

*AI-generated content