Recommended books about cons, frauds and hoaxes
Liars, fraudsters, scammers and con artists… From Belle Gibson to Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes, these stories about pathological liars are riveting for the sheer audacity of their deceptions, and sobering in the number of lives their actions affected. Below, we round up some of the most engrossing fiction and non-fiction about con artists and their cons.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Elizabeth Holmes and her biotech start-up Theranos is the scandal everyone is talking about right now courtesy of an Alex Gibney documentary on the topic. The story of Holmes' deception was broken by journalist John Carreyrou, whose riveting book, Bad Blood, won last year’s Financial Times Best Business Book of the Year Award. Not limited by the two-hour running time of a documentary, Carreyrou’s book is able to dive deeper into the history of the company and the different ways Holmes tried to fool Silicon Valley and its big-shot investors into thinking her company would revolutionse the medical industry with tech that could make blood tests faster and easier. Written more like a corporate thriller than a business book, Bad Blood will leave you incredulous at the audacity of Holmes and her billion-dollar house of cards.
The Woman Who Fooled the World by Beau Donnelly & Nick Toscano
Belle Gibson convinced the world she had healed herself from terminal brain cancer with a healthy diet. She built a global business based upon her claims. There was just one problem: she’d never had cancer. This account of Gibson’s lies looks at this scandal from multiple perspectives: from interviews with people who knew Gibson, to Gibson’s victims, to the public reaction to the scandal and the headlines it generated. A damning indictment of the cottage industry flourishing behind the wellness and ‘clean eating' movements, this cautionary tale is directed at all of us.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel
Lee Israel’s caustically funny memoir was the inspiration behind last year’s Oscar-nominated film of the same name. It covers two astonishing years in Israel’s life, when, broke and desperate, she started a criminal operation forging and selling more than three hundred letters by literary notables such as Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, Noel Coward, and others. This is a slim, fascinating confessional, by turns funny, snarky and sad, that details a hoax from the perspective of a forger with little remorse. Instead Israel, who died in 2014, uses the book to celebrate her forgeries, deeming her letters some of the best writing she’d ever done, and describing the extensive research she put in to produce them.
Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood and the World by Tom Wright & Bradley Hope
In this definitive inside account of the 1MDB scandal, two award-winning Wall Street Journal reporters expose the secret nexus of elite wealth, banking, Hollywood, and politics. It’s the story of a fraud unprecedented in gall and magnitude that began in Malaysia and would spread around the world, touching some of the world’s leading financial firms, A-list Hollywood celebrities, Las Vegas casinos and nightclubs, and even the art world. A true story of hubris and greed, Billion Dollar Whale reveals how one of the biggest heists in history was pulled off – right under the nose of the global financial industry.
The Spider Network by David Enrich
In the library of books about con artists and fraud cases, a whole sub-section could be devoted to financial fraud and scandals. One of the most astonishing in recent memory is the Libor scandal, in which a group of bankers, traders and brokers from some of the largest financial institutions manipulated interest rates on trillions in loans worldwide to reap huge profits. The Spider Network is the almost-unbelievable inside account of this operation, written by a journalist who had access to one of the group’s lynch-pins before he was sentenced to prison. The book’s expansive reach also asks questions of our justice system, the evolution of economic history and a system that promotes and rewards crooked behaviours.
For more books about cons and scams in the finance industry, also try:
- The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean & Peter Elkind
- The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust by Diana B. Henriques
- Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough & John Helyar
- The Big Short by Michael Lewis
The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova
Just what is it that keeps us falling for con artists like Bernie Madoff, Belle Gibson and Elizabeth Holmes again and again? And how do they get away with it? In The Confidence Game, Konnikova investigates the psychological principles that underlie each stage of the swindle, from the put-up all the way to the fix, and how we can train ourselves to spot a story that isn’t all it seems.
First Person by Richard Flanagan
Kif Kehlman is a young writer commissioned to help complete the memoir of Australian Safety Organisation ex-CEO Siegfried Heidl, who is awaiting trial for embezzlement charges. But as the writing gets under way, Kehlmann begins to fear that he has entered a Faustian pact and he is being corrupted by Heidl. As the deadline draws closer, he becomes ever more unsure if he is ghost writing a memoir, or if Heidl is rewriting him. Inspired by – but diverging from – Flanagan’s own history as a young writer assigned to complete the memoir of noted fraudster John Fredrich, First Person is a compelling, ambitious literary fable for our era.
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
This rollicking fantasy novel combines the ruthless underworld of The Godfather, with the swashbuckling adventure of The Princess Bride, with the heists and team banter of Ocean’s Eleven. Young Locke Lamora is an orphan who becomes a thief under the tutelage of a gifted con artist. As leader of the band of light-fingered brothers known as the Gentleman Bastards, Locke is soon infamous. But when he’s faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everything, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game – or die trying.
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Highsmith’s prototypical charming sociopath Tom Ripley is a young striver, aiming to climb the heady echelons of Manhattan high-society in the 1950s. A product of a broken home and branded a ‘sissy’ by his dismissive Aunt Dottie, Ripley becomes enamored of the moneyed world of his new friend, Dickie Greenleaf – a fondness that turns dark and obsessive. Highsmith is a master of mystery and suspense and her mid-century five-book ‘Ripliad’ is enormously satisfying, with her trademark crisp and elegant prose. In Tom Ripley, Highsmith has created an iconic avatar of the dark side of American ambition, one who oscillates between repulsive, endearing and sympathetic.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Sue Trinder is an orphan, adopted by a transient family of petty thieves – fingersmiths – in a mean 19th-century London slum. Sue is approached by an elegant con man who propose she pose as a maid to Maud Lilly, a naive gentlewoman, and aid him in seducing Maud for her inheritance. This intricately plotted queer historical fiction is reminiscent of Charles Dickens and features some truly surprising twists and turns.