Whatever happened to the old-fashioned con man?

Prompted by a businessman's conviction for selling bogus bomb detectors, Christopher Fowler admits affection for a casualty of new technology

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The invention seemed just plausible enough to work. Sold in thousands, it was a bogus bomb detector made of parts cribbed from a novelty golf ball locator. The seller, Jim McCormick, told punters he had the equivalent of James Bond's gadget expert Q working for him in his "Romanian laboratories", which turned out to be a farm in Somerset. McCormick could be regarded as a throwback to the kind of "character" who was once popular in British fiction, but the widespread use of his device in war zones placed thousands of lives at risk.

In America, there was an entire lexicon to cover such men; they were hustlers, grifters, hucksters, carnival barkers, pool sharks, poker kings, flim-flam men. Their sidekicks were shills and their victims were marks. They had a disreputable appeal, whether they were geeky numerologists out to crack casinos, riverboat mavericks with million-dollar smiles or dinner-jacketed croupiers counting cards. They were born from the world of P T Barnum, and appeared in a bewildering variety of guises, from the Wizard of Oz to Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. The con man was an archetype as familiar as the fire-and-brimstone preacher.

Thanks to America's geographical breadth, they thrived. I met the producer Jerry Gross, who distributed a movie with the empowering title Day of the Woman, starring Camille Keaton, Buster's granddaughter. It flopped, but renamed I Spit on Your Grave, it caused outrage and was frequently banned. Gross should know, because he caused most of the outrage and had it banned himself. He followed a long line of dubious showmen from William Castle to David Friedman, hawking poverty-row movies state by state, retitling them according to what he felt local audiences could be conned into seeing. One of his films was Texas Burns at Night, aka Kiss My Grits, billed as a comedy, an action adventure, a romance and a slasher flick, depending on which state showed it.

In the US, the fictional archetype survived, from Steve Martin's dazzling revival-tent conman in Leap of Faith to Leonardo DiCaprio's fake airline pilot in Catch Me If You Can. Not only were these hucksters based on real-life counterparts, they were both turned into Broadway musicals, a sure sign of the glamour attached to such characters.

In Britain, such characters had shabbier appeal. Played by Cecil Parker and Peter Sellers, disgraced military types and oleaginous floggers of black-market nylons fallen on even harder times, ladykillers who inhabited postwar boarding houses and preyed on the meagre savings of pensioners. A recognised breed, so why did they vanish from the landscape of crime fiction?

Consider this; the range of good guys has expanded, but not the bad. We now have investigators from all over the world, from Deon Meyer's South African detective to William Ryan's Moscow cop. There are Maasai warriors and Thai Buddhists solving murders, and a complete timeline of historical sleuths, not to mention cases being cracked by Oscar Wilde and Josephine Tey. With such a variety of crime-solvers to choose from, it's a little mystifying to realise that our available choice of villains seems to have shrunk. Apart from serial killers, who retain enduring appeal even though their real-life counterparts are not in the habit of leaving elaborate clues, the current taste is for abductors, usually of children and troubled young women – an unpleasant development that mirrors our concerns for society's most vulnerable sector.

In the process of refining crime entertainment to reflect today's headline stories, some of the more enjoyable ne'er-do-wells have gone missing. What's happened to the planners of heists? The appeal of corporate robbery is two-fold; first, how will they pull it off? Second, what will happen when the best-laid plans go horribly wrong? Thrillers like Outsourced by Dave Zeltserman and Fifteen Digits by Nick Santora take a cruel pleasure in tearing friendships apart as thieves fall out over suitcases of cash.

Most invisible of all now is our homegrown confidence trickster, and perhaps the solution lies in the word "confidence". Once it was easy to become a scam-artist if you had, as my father put it, "more front than Selfridges". Each week on Hancock's Half Hour, Sid James conned Tony into buying something that didn't exist, from Bolshoi tickets to a hermit's hideaway on Clapham Common. In Rising Damp, Denholm Elliott performed a similar function to Leonard Rossiter's Mr Rigsby. These were men (never women, note) who emerged from the world of Churchill's Wizards, civilians employed by the Government to practise the art of deception in warfare. After the Second World War, national defence stories emerged that still beggar belief, of fake villages being built as bomb targets and ships camouflaged by Royal Academy artists.

The War Office commissioned the pulp writer Dennis Wheatley to come up with strategies for tricking the Nazis, something akin to George W Bush hiring Stephen King to sort out Iraq. Wheatley promptly locked himself in his study with plenty of fags and champagne, and hammered out ideas like the dropping of delayed-reaction bombs disguised as common household items that would be carried home before detonation.

In the second half of the 20th century, it seemed as if everyone in Britain was on the con. John le Carré's father was jailed for fraud, and was an associate of the Kray twins. In the 1950s, Launder and Gilliat cast George Cole as the ultimate spiv. The St Trinian's films offered a surprisingly cynical take on British life; girls were sold to Arabs, phony racehorses were traded, civil servants were seduced and hidden in the school greenhouse to keep them from rubber-stamping banning orders, councillors took their lift-man along on a money-wasting European fact-finding mission. Ultimately, the school – financed on stolen money and immoral earnings – was seen as a more decent institution than the inert, corrupt and powerless state. At least it was honest about how it earned its money.

Since then, the nature of the con man has changed. In 1990, the menacing Britfilm Paper Mask plausibly exploited our fear of hospital malpractice as Paul McGann walked into an operating theatre with no medical training. He wasn't out to make money, just to improve his damaged self-esteem, and one must wonder if there's an element of similar psychology with McCormick. Will Smith's imposter in Six Degrees of Separation (he says he's Sidney Poitier's son) wants to rise above his class.

But the con man has had trouble making the leap into the new century. Now there's CCTV and the investigation management system HOLMES 2. Social media has become all-pervasive and fact-checking is just a click away, so we have to assume that real-life frauds like Frank Abagnale Jr, who impersonated doctors and lawyers, wouldn't stand a chance. A once lovable fiction standard has finally been tricked out of existence.

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