The best books about audacious imposters and shameless swindlers

Who am I?

One of the great job benefits of being a newspaper reporter is the wide array of interesting people I get to meet. Not only get to meet but in fact, get paid to meet and to tell their stories. Some of them are famous, and that’s fine. Much more interesting, I think, are the ordinary folk nobody knows who are doing something extraordinary. And then there is a third category that I find most interesting of all: The people who have something to hide. They are mysteries who don’t want to be cracked, and I find them irresistible.


I wrote...

The Imposter's War: The Press, Propaganda, and the Newsman Who Battled for the Minds of America

By Mark Arsenault,

Book cover of The Imposter's War: The Press, Propaganda, and the Newsman Who Battled for the Minds of America

What is my book about?

In the years before the United States joined WWI, a fearless New England newsman called John Revelstoke Rathom became a media celebrity for his sensational scoops about German espionage and propaganda in the U.S. His articles were designed to condition America to see the German Empire as an enemy worth fighting at war. What the public did not know was that the famous editor was not who he said he was. Rathom was a confidant of President Woodrow Wilson, he was trusted by millions of readers, and yet there is no evidence he ever spoke his real name on this continent. His darkly funny tale exposes murky details of the propaganda wars waged by foreign nations to influence American public opinion, which echoes today.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Spectacular Rogue: Gaston B. Means

Mark Arsenault Why did I love this book?

I picked up this biography of notorious Jazz-age criminal, conman, and crooked lawman Gaston Means for research on my own book – early in his career Means was a paid German agent who fed information to my subject, newsman John Rathom. But Hoyt’s brilliant book was much more valuable to me than that. It is a master class in how to tell the story of a less-than-wholesome character. Hoyt does not judge Means’ criminal behavior. Instead, his deliciously wry language left me chuckling at the towering ambition of the conman’s greatest schemes. Who else but Gaston Means would think to exploit the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby to con money out of the wealthy socialite who owned the Hope Diamond? 

By Edwin Palmer Hoyt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Spectacular Rogue as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The acclaimed biography of Gaston Bullock Means (1879-1938), an American private detective, salesman, bootlegger, forger, swindler, murder suspect, blackmailer and con artist. While not involved in the Teapot Dome scandal, Means was associated with other members of the so-called Ohio Gang that gathered around the administration of President Warren G. Harding. Means also tried to pull a con associated with the Lindbergh kidnapping, and died in prison following his criminal conviction. He was portrayed by actor Stephen Root in the third and fourth seasons of the TV series Boardwalk Empire, as a kind of confidence man who sells information to…


Book cover of Don't Ask

Mark Arsenault Why did I love this book?

Westlake’s unlucky, sad-sack adventure hero John Dortmunder is the greatest conman character in crime fiction. Years ago, at a bookstore coffee shop, I perused some book reviews for what to read next. One reviewer recommended Westlake’s comic caper series. I walked to the mystery section, pulled out Don’t Ask, opened to a random page, read it, and laughed out loud. That was not just good luck: There’s a hilarious passage on nearly every page of the book. It’s about two fictitious nations fighting over a religious artifact, but that does not begin to sum up the zany genius of Westlake’s plot. Donald Westlake was a sort of imposter himself -- he wrote under more than a dozen pen names throughout a spectacular career that spanned half a century.

By Donald E. Westlake,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Don't Ask as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In his latest comic crime caper, Dortmunder is hired to steal a bone, but not any old bone . . .

Dortmunder has a job offer. He's been hired by third parties to pull off heists in the past, but never to lay his hands on anything this peculiar. It is the 800 year old femur of a 16-year-old girl who who, having been killed and eaten by her own family, was made a saint by the Church. Now two European countries and the Catholic church are fighting like dogs over it. This bone, the femur of St Ferghana, is…


Book cover of Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Mark Arsenault Why did I love this book?

The imposters are becoming us! Jack Finney’s science-horror masterpiece seems to me like a book everybody knows about but perhaps not that many modern readers have actually read. It is about alien technology slowly replacing people with shallow imposters that threaten to destroy humanity. Scenes in this novel are among the most legitimately scary that I’ve read in fiction. I don’t know another writer who was better at portraying the desperate madness provoked by bone-deep emotional terror. By that I mean, Finney’s characters are at times driven nearly out of their minds with fear. Watching these characters, as a reader, I felt their terror in the center of my chest.

By Jack Finney,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Invasion of the Body Snatchers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Celebrate one of the earliest science fiction novels by rediscovering Jack Finney’s internationally acclaimed Invasion of the Body Snatchers—which Stephen King calls a story “to be read and savored for its own satisfactions,” now repackaged with a foreword by #1 New York Times bestselling author, Dean Koontz.

On a quiet fall evening in the peaceful town of Mill Valley, California, Dr. Miles Bennell discovers an insidious, horrifying plot. Subtly, almost imperceptibly, alien life-forms are taking over the bodies and minds of his neighbors, friends, family, the woman he loves, and the entire world as he knows it.

First published in…


Book cover of Ponzi's Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend

Mark Arsenault Why did I love this book?

Before Ponzi was a scheme, Ponzi was a man. His name was Charles Ponzi. He sailed to the US from Europe with nothing – after gambling away his nest egg during the trans-Atlantic crossing – and then made himself an ill-gotten fortune through a swindle so famous it is now named for him. I love learning history, but not through academic texts. I need to learn it through stories. And the critical ingredient that makes compelling narrative nonfiction are the details that enable me to see the characters and their world in my mind. Zuckoff’s book put me in Boston in 1920, with the sights, sounds, and odors to bring Ponzi and his victims to life.

By Mitchell Zuckoff,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ponzi's Scheme as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It was a time when anything seemed possible–instant wealth, glittering fame, fabulous luxury–and for a run of magical weeks in the spring and summer of 1920, Charles Ponzi made it all come true. Promising to double investors’ money in three months, the dapper, charming Ponzi raised the “rob Peter to pay Paul” scam to an art form. At the peak of his success, Ponzi was raking in more than $2 million a week at his office in downtown Boston. Then his house of cards came crashing down–thanks in large part to the relentless investigative reporting of Richard Grozier’s Boston Post.…


Book cover of The Resurrection of the Romanovs: Anastasia, Anna Anderson, and the World's Greatest Royal Mystery

Mark Arsenault Why did I love this book?

It was on my favorite TV show as a kid, In Search of… starring Leonard Nimoy, that I first heard of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. The tsar was murdered with his entire family in 1918 – or so it was thought. So who was this old woman living in Virginia claiming to be Anastasia? Decades later, I saw the headlines reporting that DNA tests proved Anderson was an imposter, but I never knew one percent of the story before diving into The Resurrection of the Romanovs. Reading along while a mystery from my childhood was so painstakingly solved was great fun. If only now they could find the Loch Ness Monster.

By Greg King, Penny Wilson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Resurrection of the Romanovs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The truth of the enduring mystery of Anastasia's fate-and the life of her most convincing impostor The passage of more than ninety years and the publication of hundreds of books in dozens of languages has not extinguished an enduring interest in the mysteries surrounding the 1918 execution of the last Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family. The Resurrection of the Romanovs draws on a wealth of new information from previously unpublished materials and unexplored sources to probe the most enduring Romanov mystery of all: the fate of the Tsar's youngest daughter, Anastasia, whose remains were not buried with those…


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Flashes of Insight

By Lynda Allen,

Book cover of Flashes of Insight

Lynda Allen

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What is my book about?

Mood swings and insomnia are one thing, hot flash-induced psychic visions are quite another. When Olivia Wilde realizes the visions she’s experiencing in the midst of hot flashes are actually premonitions, she must learn to understand and trust what she sees in order to help a friend, preserve a piece of history, and save a life.

When Liv’s friend’s antique store in Fredericksburg, Virginia is robbed, she finds herself in the midst of a quest to find a secret cache of priceless letters written by President James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth. With the encouragement of her "Monthly" dinner party girlfriends, Liv begins to learn how to harness her newfound abilities, along with her smarts, to help catch the thief.

Flashes of Insight

By Lynda Allen,

What is this book about?

Mood swings and insomnia are one thing, hot flash-induced psychic visions are quite another. When Olivia Wilde realizes the visions she's been experiencing in the midst of hot flashes are actually premonitions, she has to learn to understand and trust what she sees in order to help a friend, preserve a piece of history, and save a life.

Deftly weaving together elements of history, mystery, menopause, humor, some Jersey girl attitude, a bit of salty language, and a healthy dose of female friendship, Flashes of Insight marks the start of a new "Jersey Cozy"* series sure to deliver laughter, intelligence,…


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