The Con Men: Hustling in New York City

October 17, 2015 Book Reviews 0 ★★★½

The Con Men: Hustling in New York City three-half-stars
Author(s): Terry Williams, Trevor B. Milton
Published by Columbia University Press on 10/11/2015
ISBN: 0231170823
Genres: History, Sociology/Cultural Studies
Pages: 288
Format: eBook
Source: Review Copy

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Selling bootleg goods, playing the numbers, squatting rent-free, scamming tourists with bogus stories, selling knockoffs on Canal Street, and crafting Ponzi schemes—this vivid account of hustling in New York City explores the sociological reasons why con artists play the game, and the psychological dynamics they exploit to win it. Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton, two prominent sociologists and ethnographers, spent years with New York con artists to uncover their secrets. The result is an unprecedented view into how con games operate, whether in back alleys and side streets or in police precincts and Wall Street boiler rooms. This book is not only an absorbing read but also a sophisticated study of how con artists use verbal persuasion, physical misdirection, and sheer charm to convince others to do what they want. Williams and Milton examine how street hustling is an act of performance art and find meaning in the methods con artists use to exact bounty from unsuspecting tourists and ordinary New Yorkers alike. They explore the personal experiences and influences that create a successful hustler, building a portrait of unusual emotional and psychological depth. Their work offers a new take on structure and opportunity, showing how the unique urban and social architecture of New York City lends itself to the perfect con.

I received this book for free from Review Copy in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

When I started reading Con Men I was expecting stories about big time cons in New York.  I was thinking about the classic con men like we see in the The Sting, The Grifters, or Catch Me If You Can.  That really isn’t what this book is about.  This book is about the street level hustler.  The guys paying three card monte and running scams on neighborhood stores.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this book.  If you are looking for a behind the scenes look on how someone can talk tourists out of their money, convince a store to let merchandise walk out the front door, or set up Ponzi schemes, then this book delivers.  The authors spend years with scam artists plying the streets of New York and delivers an amazing view into that world you can’t get from reading news accounts or trial transcripts.  They tell you not only how they pulled some of their cons, but what they were thinking when they did it and why the cons work.  You get a peek into the mindset of the hustlers themselves.

The one drawback I have is that the authors can’t quite seem to get out of their own way.  As sociologist, they lay out reasons why people become hustlers and the economic issues that keep them there.  While it’s interesting, it wasn’t want I wanted in this book and it detracted from the parts I enjoyed.  It was distracting to jump from a first-hand account of a con to what seemed like a cliff notes version of an academic paper.  It’s a hard goal, trying to educate your audience and be a story teller at the same time, and sadly this book seems to vacillate between the two rather than find a happy medium.

If you have an interest in the short con or want to know more about street level hustlers, this is the book to pick up.  Just be prepared to skim some sections.


Review by Travis Starnes


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