February 2, 2009 | 20 Comments
He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. At the age of twenty-one he wrote A Treatise on the Binomial Theorem1, which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it he won the mathematical chair at one of our smaller universities, and had, to all appearances, a most brilliant career before him.
But the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers. Dark rumours gathered round him in the University town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and come down to London…
So begins the description of Professor Moriarty, arch-nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, a man whose talents I wish to emulate. Moriarty, that is, not Holmes. After all, Moriarty was the “Napoleon of crime”. He was “a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order.” As P.G. Wodehouse said, “He is crime itself.” High praise; maybe none higher, and worthy enough for any man.
Why these reflections? It’s because the recent lessening of economical vitality throughout the world has forced to rethink my career. I have been made to contemplate just what I am good at, what skills I posses in high order, what I can do and what I cannot.
Part of what drives me is that I want to make a lasting impression on the world before I head towards my final regression to the mean. Celebrity through the traditional routes—movie star, rock singer, messiah, and so on—are closed to me because of my lack of beauty. Fame through academics is extraordinarily unlikely—there is no Nobel prize in statistics, for example. So what better than to become a master of crime? Most people haven’t thought of it, there is opportunity and constant employment, ample room for a man to prove himself.
It is thus not much of a decision at all. The only real question is: what type of crime? There are, of course, many possibilities.
Murder is out, mainly because there isn’t anybody I want to kill and, despite what you see in the movies, there isn’t much money in it. No chance for kidnapping, which is both despicable and unprofitable.
I would never sell drugs. Not because I have anything against them (though I have never, not even once, used an illegal drug), but because there is already a substantial organization devoted to this activity, an organization that discourages competition. Besides, the prohibition that drives drug sales may be weakening. We have a president who is an ex-coke addict, a previous president that was a drunk, and one before that that didn’t inhale weed. Since nobody seems much bothered by these proclivities, it might be only a small matter of time before the prohibition is lifted. Thus, there isn’t a bright future for this area of crime.
Blackmail would be acceptable, but it isn’t like you can make it a full-time job. It’s too opportunistic and random to rely on for a steady income.
Burglary, larceny, grand theft auto, and such like are possibilities, but I’m not especially lithe or athletic, detriments which limit the upside because you have to be in pretty good shape to steal any kind of material goods.
Anyway, all these nefarious activities are the sort you have henchmen carry out once you reach the loftier stages of felonious activity. One doesn’t want to unnecessarily soil one’s hands, nor, as the saying goes, take the fall for small change.
No, what you want is some kind of crime that the public isn’t especially eager to prosecute, an area which, if you get caught, you can be assured of sympathetic or pliable juries. The traditional area is politics, but in politics you have to be able to stomach meetings, an endless string of despair-inducing meetings. I avoid meetings like proper spelling2, so it has to be something different.
It was Clark Gable that reminded me of the perfect branch of crime. The grift.
In Hold Your Man (1933), Gable sees a wallet on the street and makes a grab for it, right at the same time another passerby does. Gable says “Mine” and so does the other guy. Neither suggests going to the police to turn the wallet in. They instead settle on opening it and splitting whatever is inside, which turns out to be only two bucks. And a ring. Gable says, “Hey, I know a girl who’d like that. You keep the two bucks and I’ll give you another five for the ring.” The other guy says no way, it might be worth a lot more than that.
They decide to hock the ring and split the cash, so they walk to a pawn shop which is nearby. A man is rubbing the window of the pawn shop down. Gable approaches him and asks him how much he can get for the ring. The pawn shop man pulls out one of those monocle-jewelry eyepieces and says, “Let’s move over here where there’s better light.” He finally announces that he’ll give them $200 for the ring; then he walks back toward the pawn shop.
Gable says he doesn’t want to get involved and offers to “sell” his share of the ring for fifty bucks. The man thinks it over and shows that he only has thirty with him, which Gable accepts saying, “After all, it’s found money.” He takes the money and walks off, while the man, smiling, hurries over to and into the pawn shop.
You guessed it. Gable meets up with the “pawn shop” man, who you will remember was never actually in the store, just hanging around outside. The ring is worth nothing and the man is out twenty-eight bucks. Gable and the “pawn shop” man split the take.
No crime would have been committed unless the man on the street decided to first abandon morality and steal the wallet himself. In the grift, the “victim” is just as guilty as the con man and is thus very unlikely to report the transgression, and even if he does, he’d have an uphill battle convincing the cops of his honesty.
Grifting is not the perfect branch of crime and there are risks, but if there were not, then there would no point in trying to become a fiendish mastermind of it. The fields has a rich history loaded with colorful scalawags, now remembered fondly. The Yellow Kid Weil, Doc Meriwether, Fats Levine, Charles Ponzi. A grifter is not so much of a criminal as a character, what he does is not so much illegal, it is more that he teaches his marks a lesson. As the Yellow Kid said, “Each of my victims had larceny in his heart.” You can’t—and shouldn’t—cheat an honest man.
So grifting it is. But what specialty?
The medical con has a long, respectable history. Chiropractry, homeopathy, are still going strong. Positions in medical “guru-ship” are always open (e.g. Deepak Chopra and others). But I work in a hospital already and they are full of sick people who are not always in the best of moods. I like to be around happy people, so the medical con is out.
I could always set up shop as a psychic. But there isn’t much point going down that street unless you can be a psychic to some celebrity so that you can generate strong word of mouth and garner free publicity. The advantage, of course, is that it’s completely legal and you can get away with just about anything. That’s the negative side, too, for someone looking to be a master of crime. There’s no challenge.
It would be dull trying to horn in on an internet scam, mostly because people are so familiar with Nigeria’s leading export. Too much work for too little return, here.
Journalism is an age-old choice. You can say anything you want, fool millions of people, have a ball. But the best you can do is sell a book or two, maybe land a spot on a shouting show. Tedious work, really. Worse, it’s all legal.
Banking has recently been publicly revealed to be one big con—Madoff, Lehman Brothers, etc. etc. People are currently suspicious of anything to do with finance, but I still think there’s room to maneuver here. And it would be fun taking money back from the folks who are partly responsible for my turning to crime.
I’m not finally settled on the specific branch of sin, so I’m open to suggestions. I’m also accepting investments in my future career. I expect returns no less than 50%. The time to act is now. Send cash only.
1See also, Breaking the Law of Averages: Real-Life Probability and Statistics, “a book which ascends to such rarefied heights of pure mathematics that it is said that there was no man in the scientific press capable of criticising it.”
2See the same book.