British novelist Rayner (The Cloud Stretcher, 2001) offers a painstakingly researched history of a Depression-era confidence game that also explains why people fall for such schemes.
Himself a youthful thief (as recounted in his memoir, The Blue Suit, 1995) and the son of a con man, the author is no stranger to the web of lies spun out in a swindle. Here, he chronicles the story of Oscar Hartzell, a failed Illinois farmer who managed to convince thousands of credulous Midwesterners that they would be given a share of Sir Frances Drake’s fortune if they donated to a legal fund set up on behalf of the famous explorer’s American heirs. Of course, Hartzell claimed that even very small donations would yield enormous returns. At the height of the scam, he was receiving tens of thousands of dollars a day at the American Exchange office in London, where he claimed to be in negotiations with genealogical experts and government officials. In truth, he was squandering the money, womanizing, and dining every night at the Savoy, with agents from Scotland Yard and the American embassy following his every move. Eventually, Hartzell was nabbed for mail fraud. By then, Rayner has us hooked, and we understand why the con man’s donors stuck by him even after he was found guilty. At a time when Wall Street had plunged the county into economic ruin, Hartzell’s smile and homespun ways inspired, yes, confidence. Rayner lays out the fundamentals of the con game in his tale. The swindler relies on anticipation and delay, always putting off the prize for later. Each time it is put off, the prize grows larger, thus keeping his victims rabidly hopeful when they should skeptical. While Hartzell lost his cool once or twice in custody, he usually maintained equilibrium, knowing others would believe him if he appeared to believe himself.
A zesty mix of Death of a Salesman, My Ántonia, and a Bogart film.