Cons generally come in two forms, the long con and the short con. The long con is more elaborate and has more that can go wrong, takes a lot longer to set up but has correspondingly higher rewards if everything goes right. This is the art of fleecing a single person out of a lot of money all at once. It is this that the BBC TV show ''Hustle'' and Richard Asplin's ''Con Man'' are based on. The short con can be something as basic as a rigged game of ''find the lady'', which aims to part as many people from a little bit of money as quickly as possible. The short con may have a lower return, but that return comes a lot quicker and this is the basis for Will Ferguson's ''Hustle''.
Jack McCleary is stuck in small town America, alone with his father since the death of his mother. He's stuck in a dead end job with no prospects, watching his father spend all their money on a con that will never pay off. His love life has no more success than any other aspect of his existence and it's no surprise that his head could be turned by the glamour of life with Virgil and Miss Rose.
Virgil and Miss Rose are grafters, touring the country making a dishonest, if well paid, living running short cons. They teach Jack the secret of their success and give him a life of more excitement than he'd ever believed possible. Jack contributes as well as learns and soon proves to be a natural grafter, never looking back and always concentrating on the next con.
I loved Ferguson's narrative, which fits wonderfully with the era of the story. Jack has the perfect laid-back tone which has a slightly nourish feel, which makes me think of Chandler's Philip Marlowe at times, albeit on opposite sides of the law. His voice comes across as a lazy drawl with a Texas accent I could almost hear as I read, particularly in the earlier chapters when the pace was a little slower. McCleary's voice came across so vividly that I couldn't help thinking this would make the perfect audio book with the right person reading.
The background is impeccably researched, with Virgil's knowledge of cons and con artists being almost encyclopaedic. He does get a little preachy at times, but this fits in wonderfully with his character and both Jack and I were fascinated pupils. I have no idea if many of the historical con artists Virgil talked about were real or not; if they were, it's a wonderfully researched book and if they were all a product of Ferguson's imagination, it's even more incredible. This kind of history combined with the real life events of World War 2 Jack hears about on the radio and in the newspapers combine so well with the fiction that it's tough to believe there was no Jack McCleary. It all seems so vivid that it wouldn't surprise me to discover that this was actually some kind of biography, presented in a style unique to the genre.
The pacing of the story builds beautifully, with the slower start working well with the slow pace of life with Jack's back story and then picking up as his life gets more exciting and almost becoming a rush towards the end. The story moved like Virgil's getaway car pulling away from the kerb, slowly building up speed and not stopping for anything. My one minor issue with the story was that it took a little longer than I felt necessary to get going, with too much of Jack's back-story than was required. I understand the need for Ferguson to show how Jack would have been enticed by Virgil and Miss Rose, but I did feel the point was over made.
The three main characters were wonderful, with the youthful exuberance of Jack McCleary combining beautifully with the older, wiser head of Virgil and the glamour that was Miss Rose. The different effect that both these people had on Jack was well explored and the three of them were distinct enough that I can't help but come up with a picture of them in my mind. It's not just the people that were drawn so vividly, as the whole feel of the book shows you depression-era America, even when it's not being described in vivid detail. Ferguson paints in broad strokes, but you can still see a detailed picture emerge from them, which is a sign of real talent in a writer. Ferguson implants the image and the reader's mind finishes it off for him.
Even with all this style, what ''Hustle'' never forgets to be is a lot of fun. This is not one of those well-written books that turns out to be all style and no substance; this is all style and all substance. It's smartly plotted, full of action and still manages to be very descriptive and vivid. Once you get over the slightly slow start, ''Hustle'' is an entertaining and compelling read. With a current lowest price of £2.97 from the Amazon Marketplace, it's not quite compelling enough for a purchase as the nature of the book suggests you may only read it the once, but it's definitely one to borrow, and as soon as possible.
This is a slightly amended version of a review that has previously appeared under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk