Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Cost of Devotion: The Conman by Ed McBain

Everybody has a right to earn a living.
Opening to
The Con Man
by Ed McBain
Would you ever get a tattoo just to please someone you love?

Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novel, The Con Man (1957) is about the art of the con, both the small time con and the much bigger long con.  The small time con takes place in the course of an afternoon, maybe an hour, and concludes with someone losing some money, typically not that much money but enough to make it worthwhile to contact the police.  

The officers of the 87th Precinct take the case, a bit reluctantly--the description of the suspects isn't much to go on--but as long as the con men continue working in the area, there's a good chance they will  trip up and be caught.  

The small time con man plot line in Ed McBain's novel makes for entertaining reading.  The narrator follows the two con men as they move from mark to mark running various cons on them, improvising as needed.  The cons they run strike me as classics, but they all make for entertaining reading.   One thing that makes the reading fun is discovering the point where the actual con kicks in--usually a moment when the con men's mark suggests they all do something a certain way not knowing that the con men have led him to that moment, set things up so that he will suggest they all make the move that will result his loss of lots of money.  (If you were a fan of the British television series Hustle, like I am, then you know the type of storyline I mean.)  

Of course, such small time crime is not enough for a novel, so there is a second, much more dangerous con man at work in Mr. McBain's novel.  As always, we begin with the discovery of a body, a young woman who has been retrieved from the river though she died of poison not from drowning.  Mr. McBain shifts the narration from character to character in his novels, so we know who the killer is and that he is working on his next victim while the police are pursing him for this first murder.  

The killer is also a con man.  He preys on lonely women whom he meets through the lonely hearts section of various newspapers.  Through a series of letters he wins them over then invites them to move to the city, marry him, and start a new life.  Take the chance.  This is true love.  You are the one I've been looking for.  Once the women arrive, he gets them to transfer all of their savings into his bank account and begins to poison them.  They are so devoted, he is so loving, that they agree to all his requests even to getting a small heart shaped tattoo between their thumb and fore finger.  

Mr. McBain shifts his focus from character to character throughout the novel and throughout the 87th Precinct series.  In The Con Man his main focus is on officer Steve Carella and his wife Teddy.  Through this relationship, Mr. McBain takes his novel to a critical level that surprised me.  While I'm not sure the author does it on purpose, The Con Man makes a very cutting observation on the nature of love and devotion by coparing the killer and his victims with Steve and Teddy Carella.

The novel's killer manipulates women so that they become devoted to him, willing to do anything he asks of them just to please him.  These women are wrongly convinced that he is as devoted to them as they are to him and that he wants the same thing they want.  They are convinced that they have found a love worthy of their devotion.

Teddy Carella is convinced of this, too.  While the killer's victims are all described as plain, Teddy is beautiful.  That she is deaf and cannot speak sometimes makes her wonder if her husband Steve must make sacrifices on her behalf the same way the killers victims sometimes wonder what so handsome a man is doing with a woman as plain as they are.  But Steve Carella is completely devoted to Teddy.  He thinks she is the one in their relationship who could have done better.  He wants only to make her happy.  He is worthy of her devotion without doubt.  This is only the second book in the series that I have read, but theirs should be considered one of the great loves in literature, at least in crime fiction if you ask me. 

This parallel structure--two couples, both with women completely devoted to the men they love--set up a comparison that forces the reader to wonder just how big a roll fate plays in our lives.  How much control do we have over whom we fall in love with?  If Teddy, who sees herself as damaged in the same way the plain women who become victims of the con man do, had fallen for the wrong man could she have faced the same fate?  Are all our love lives simply subject to fortune?  

In the books closing pages, Steve Carella comes home to find Teddy sleeping.  He pulls back the bedsheets to reveal her shoulder and discovers that Teddy has gotten the tattoo the two of them talked about earlier in the novel, the one she resisted getting.  It's a tender moment.  Even a more modern reader can see the tattoo as a loving gesture.  But it's still the same thing the murder victims did, get a tattoo to please the man they loved.  In one case it was the mark of a murderer.  In other it's a sign of love.  In both cases it's a act of devotion.  

Be careful with your devotion.

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