Good books are like recurrent dreams: haunting the reader’s waking hours by sitting, tantalisingly, on the edge of conscious thought. Take, for example, The Big Con: The story of the confidence men, David W. Maurer’s 1940 study of American grifters in the early twentieth century. Maurer’s book has dogged me ever since I revisited my old stamping ground of Berkeley, California, on the eve of Donald Trump’s unlikely ascension to the US presidency. Walking those familiar streets, talking to old friends, watching Trump’s coronation, one of the lessons of The Big Con surfaced in my mind and has done so ever since. Maurer’s rule, which he considered trite but true, was: ‘You can’t cheat an honest man.’ It was a maxim told to Maurer by the gaggle of con artists he interviewed for his linguistic and sociological study. According to the grifters, a person could only be swindled if they had ‘larceny in their veins – in other words, he must want something for nothing, or be prepared to participate in an unscrupulous deal’.