All the World’s a Scheme

A juicy ruse can elevate a literary plot: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Illustration of a book cover wearing a bandit's mask
Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The best con men are always thinking of their next mark. The infamous mortgage fraudster Matthew Cox worked multiple angles: He stole strangers’ identities, tricked Social Security clerks and banks with forged documents, and swindled at least $12 million. “He was really in love with creating a story. The way he would talk about things, I used to feel like we were living in a movie,” a former accomplice of his told the Atlantic contributing writer Rachel Monroe. A con man, after all, should be as beguiling as he is conniving; even the psychologist Maria Konnikova, who wrote the book on grifters, The Confidence Game, has said that her expertise did not stop her from almost falling for their charms. After Cox finally got busted for spinning tales, he refashioned himself as a storyteller—a true-crime author, his cleverest act yet.

A juicy ruse can elevate a literary plot, in true crime or otherwise. Jenny Han’s YA novel To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and its Netflix adaptation were crowd-pleasers that leaned into a well-worn formula: a fake relationship that turns into real romance. The premeditated artifice, Hannah Giorgis points out, makes the eventual intimacy even sweeter. And in Emi Yagi’s Diary of a Void, one woman’s elaborate lie exposes her harsh reality. The protagonist pretends to be pregnant to lighten her workload, but, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan writes in her review, “consciously or unconsciously, she is pushing back not just against her office but against a long history of gender-based discrimination.”

Still, sometimes, a scam is just a scam. An early-American “fake news” story dropped nearly two centuries ago, when the New York Sun reported, via six installments and 17,000 words, that there were quasi-humans on the moon, that there was a telescope that could be used to see them, and that those creatures had bat wings, sapphire temples, and copious amounts of open-air sex. The paper was supported by ads, and their currency was attention—not unlike many news and social-media platforms today. Truth is power, but a spectacle sells.

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What We’re Reading

Illustration of a book with a photo of Matthew Cox on the cover

Courtesy of Matthew Cox / The Atlantic

The con man who became a true-crime writer

“[Cox] hoped the traits he had relied on while committing mortgage fraud—a gift for storytelling, careful attention to documents, a patient ability to untangle complex systems, and a familiarity with the underworld—would serve him well in his writing career.”

Image of multiple sharp hooks

2 / Riko Pictures / Ocean / Corbis

Can you spot a liar?

“When you’re down, when you’re vulnerable, there’s change going on, and your world no longer makes sense the way that it used to … you’re particularly vulnerable to people who make sense of it for you. You want that meaning. You want that sense of connection and con artists are very happy to supply it for you.”

Lana Condor, Anna Cathcart, and Noah Centineo smiling and sitting in a car in "To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before"


The enduring appeal of the ‘fake relationship’ rom-com

“The fake-relationship trope endures in no small part because of the same factor that makes the rom-com such a satisfying genre: The mystery is not in what the endpoint itself will be, but in how the would-be lovers will get there.”

A pregnant person's silhouette

Vartika Sharma

The strange audacity of faking a big life moment

“Another author might have played the idea [of a fake pregnancy] for slapstick or suspense. Shibata does take measures to avoid being detected—choosing a remote bathroom when she has her period, stuffing her dress to appear pregnant—but Yagi’s focus is on how acting pregnant reshapes Shibata’s relationship to herself.”

Archival image of a newspaper illustration of bat-people on the moon

Library of Congress

What Facebook and Google can learn from the first major news hoax

“Human attention is a fickle mercenary, one who doesn’t always gravitate to the finest cause. People’s automatic attention tends toward the outrageous, not the civically valuable, making popularity in attention markets a poor gauge of truth.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Nicole Acheampong. The book she’s reading this week is Where Reasons End, by Yiyun Li.

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