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The Art of Deception

I’m currently reading The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova, which looks at why we are so easily taken in by the scheming of others. The book cites major frauds and audacious imposters as examples, and explains why we as gullible victims make their work so much easier for them.

As a novelist, I’ve always been interested in deception as a theme. There’s something compelling about a character who isn’t quite what he or she seems. The trick then is to gradually reveal these hidden aspects while keeping the reader engaged enough to crack on with the story.

Deception doesn’t have to entail espionage and over-complicated plot lines. It often works equally as well as a psychological theme. In my first novel, The Butterfly Collectorthe protagonist, Peter Calliet, develops an obsession with a woman he meets at a party. The outcome of this and his efforts to keep it hidden from his fiance, Claudia, begin to take their toll on his personal life. Everything he’s built up starts to unravel.


Reading about imposters and the lengths they go to deceive their victims is a sobering experience. According to research, we all have the potential to deceive, and do so on a regular basis without even realising it. According to Konnikova, the average person tells several lies to a stranger within minutes of striking up a conversation. But these are relatively minor fibs without any sinister undertones. Most of us wouldn’t dream of conning someone for financial gain, or any other dubious purpose – and yet this is what the professional scammer does without even thinking.

Perhaps the the greatest con-artist of all is the novelist. Masquerading as an authority on many different subjects, he seeks to beguile and seduce – and all from a position of relative safety. He’s something of a thief, too, stealing people’s recollections and treasured memories, only to rehash and reinvent them into tales of his own. If he’s successful, he’s handsomely rewarded and given a pat on the back. If not, he dusts himself off and starts all over again with a different set of characters and a new cover story to work on.

I’m being facetious, of course. But the truth is that to some extent we all hide behind masks, and we all like to present an image that’s not quite aligned with the truth. Psychologists might link it to the survival instinct, a form of self-preservation that’s hung on from our distant past. But for the scammer it’s a career move, a conscious decision to take advantage of people’s vulnerabilities. And because most of us tend to be nice, trusting individuals who don’t question what we’re told, we buy right into it.

So the next time you meet a stranger who asks you intimate questions about your personal life – be careful. It could be a con-artist, setting you up for a scam. On the other hand it could be a writer, like me, conducting research for his latest novel.

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