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.

The books I picked & why

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Spectacular Rogue: Gaston B. Means

By Edwin Palmer Hoyt,

Book cover of Spectacular Rogue: Gaston B. Means

Why 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? 

Don't Ask

By Donald Westlake,

Book cover of Don't Ask

Why 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.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

By Jack Finney,

Book cover of Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Why 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.

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

By Mitchell Zuckoff,

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

Why 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.

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

By Greg King, Penny Wilson,

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

Why 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.

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