(Reviewed by Guy Savage MAR 25, 2007)
"I want to explain how you can’t escape your fate, how your own nature is something you can’t choose, how your entire life is already laid out for you the day you appear on the earth."
While I really enjoy books or films about cons and con artists when they are properly done--say for example, the Argentinean film “Nine Queens ” and Irvin Yalom’s clever book Lying on the Couch, all too often I am disappointed. The stakes are high with this genre--a good book about a con artist has to give out enough information to keep the reader intrigued--without giving away any surprises or using trickery to keep the reader in the dark. All too often with this genre, the plot is bogged down by trickery and its own convoluted cleverness. Frustrated, we are left wondering just what is real, what is the con, and whether we missed some subtle clues along the way to help us decipher the action. And then there’s this uncomfortable feeling that the "real" con was the time wasted waiting for a decent payoff. So I approached Matthew Klein’s novel Con Ed with some trepidation.
I was delighted to discover that author Matthew Klein achieves the almost-impossible in Con Ed--a truly marvelous example of the genre--a book with a con theme that is never confusing, complicated or out-of-control. Klein keeps tight control over the action until the very last pages, and then, and only then are we allowed "full disclosure." This is achieved by the deceptively calm, lightly humorous and self-deprecating first person narration of ex-convict and first-class con artist Kip Largo.
Fifty-four old Largo has recently been released from prison after serving a five-year sentence for securities and mail fraud at Lompoc. At the high point of Kip Largo’s career, he was worth twenty million dollars, and was happily married. Now he’s divorced and considers himself lucky to work at a dry cleaning shop owned by an amiable boss whose gender remains unclear. It’s not a particularly pleasant job, but it pays the rent. Meanwhile, Kip is trying to launch his internet vitamin business--MrVitamin.com--with little success.
The novel begins with a simple con being clumsily conducted by an amateur in a small bar in Northern California. As middle-aged Kip Largo sips his drink, he intervenes when the con goes wrong, and he’s approached by a beautiful blond who offers to buy him a drink. Kip notes, “Never in the history of the entire world has a woman offered a strange man a drink. Unless she wants something.” And it’s not long before the blonde, wife of millionaire Las Vegas hotel owner, Edward Napier, reveals exactly what she wants from Kip. She wants him to conduct a con with the goal of stealing millions from her husband. Smelling a rat, Kip refuses as he’s trying to go straight—something he tried to do unsuccessfully once before. Scraping a living at the dry cleaners comes to an abrupt end, however when his troubled son, Toby, shows up and confesses he needs 60,000 to pay off the Russian mob. And the game begins… with Kip stepping into the world of brutal Russian mobsters, a brilliant casino owner and a world-class con worth millions.
Klein’s style is subtle but on target, and he creates in these pages, the perfect atmosphere -- the luxury hotel in Vegas, Largo’s squalid, tiny apartment, the lavish mansions of the Las Vegas magnate, Ed Napier and Russian mobster, Andre Sustevich, and the tension of the dry cleaning shop where Largo is a “walking, breathing reminder of the customer’s own filth and imperfection.” Largo, at first, is a likeable character, but as the novel develops and he reveals details about the people he’s destroyed throughout the course of his criminal career, this opinion shifts, and the reader realizes that Largo’s personality masks the character of a very practiced con man whose job it is to make you trust him.
Largo’s calm narration belies the tension of events and the high stakes of the game. He maintains a sense of humour that often seems wildly out-of-place--especially when events turn violent. It takes a great deal of skill to write this sort of novel--maintaining the narrator’s amoral and emotionally detached style while also juggling reality and the perceived reality of a complex con. The novel is rife with details about popular cons, The Rules of Cons as well as common terms -- The Roper, the Button, the Mark, shell companies, and cacklebladders. This is a novel about human greed, redemption and how we can’t escape the inevitable fate designed by our immutable characters. A truly great, riveting read and highly recommended.
- Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Con Ed at MostlyFiction.com
(back to top)
Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Con Ed (March 2007)
- Switchback (released in UK only)
(back to top)
- Official website for Matthew Klein
- Crime Fiction Dossier review of Con Ed
- New York Times review of Con Ed
- Reviewing the Evidence on Switchback
- Tangled Web UK Review of Switchback
(back to top)
About the Author:
Matthew Klein graduated from Yale University in 1990. He attended Stanford Graduate School of Business, in Palo Alto, during the Internet boom years, but he dropped out of school a quarter shy of graduating, to help run a technology company he founded.
He lived in Silicon Valley for almost a decade, and started several technology firms, which collectively raised tens of millions of venture capital dollars, and employed hundreds of people… before they went bankrupt and disappeared.
He now writes novels and runs a trading-related software company called Collective2.
He lives in Rye Brook, New York with his wife Laura.