Monday, August 28, 2023

Meeting a Con Man Helped Me Become a Better Writer: Guest Post by Nev March

In the early 90s, my husband and I were new immigrants to the US. We had a small apartment and needed a couch. Simple enough, right? But cash was tight because I was a grad student, still years away from earning a salary. Seaman’s Furniture in Secaucus NJ had announced a thanksgiving day sale, with financing, so we went in and selected a couch.

The salesman was a tall dapper black man, very polished and disdainful, impeccably dressed, who left us with a long form to apply for store credit for the $600 sofa. Yeah, we were poor.
When we handed in the form, he wanted to see ID. I had no drivers license, so he asked for credit cards. At 24, and na├»ve, I handed him our credit cards. He asked for two more “proofs of Identification” and walked away to make copies. 
This was my only mistake.
In time the couch was delivered, and we made payments on it. Then to my horror, came the random charges on our credit cards. $400, $525, $800! $1200! 

These nearly maxed out our credit limits! We had no means to pay! Frantic, we disputed the charges and ordered new credit cards, but the churning in my gut kept me up at night. How had our credit card numbers got stolen? Who had access to our home? 

My husband and I went over our last month,  puzzling over this. Could the super have entered our apartment and stolen our mail? Could someone else have access to our mailbox? Then my husband remembered the smooth-talking salesman, who had such a lofty attitude, and talked down to me for not having a drivers license. 

I reported the credit card charges to the local Highland Park NJ police. A nice young policeman came by and took my statement. That was it.

Then, I decided to play detective.

Each of the fraudulent charges had come from “Essence by mail.” I called each credit card company and learned this was a mail order company. I obtained the confirmation number and dates of purchase. Then I called Essence by Mail and asked the puzzled representative, “Where did this item get delivered?”

“To your address.”

“Oh? Which address?”

“To Fred Robinson, at 121 Center Terrace, Newark NJ”

No, I have not changed the name or address for this article. Three decades later I still remember it. It’s not often you meet a con man!

Next, I turned over my investigation to the local police. The amused Seargent shuffled through the copies I’d made: The report of the incident, credit card statements with the fake charges encircled, my letter about the phone calls I’d made, and the conman’s address I had uncovered. 

He said, “Sure, I’ll file these. But it costs time to send someone over to Newark, time we don’t have.”

I stared at him. “So, you’ll do nothing?”

He shrugged. “You changed your credit cards, right? So that’s that.” 

Credit card fraud featured low on their priorities. But I now had a clear image of the villain of my story, the smooth featured arrogant salesman at Seaman’s Furniture who ripped off customers with such finesse. Hopefully he is now rotting in jail, but somehow, I doubt it.

Writers spend a great deal of time working through their protagonist’s mindset, their struggles, their reactions, their motivations. We reveal these in internal monologs, self-talk, observations that reveal character. 

In my debut novel, a worn-out mixed-race soldier invalids out of the British Indian army to investigate the suspicious deaths of two young women, and finds a welcome within his Parsi client’s family. Colonial India os a lush, vibrant setting, full of interesting cultural groups and conflicting agendas. As I wrote the draft of Murder in Old Bombay, I crafted a villainous duo, an arrogant princeling and his devious henchman. However, I struggled to understand their attitudes. How did they think? 

My experience at the furniture store gave me a sense of an antagonist’s perspective. How clearly I recall his manner, his demanding questions, his deriding attitude! From the behavior of that sneering salesman, I can deduce what likely went through his mind: Ah, a pair of kids. Indians just off the boat. Cool! Let’s see, what can I get out of them? They’re financing a paltry $600? Ok, so dirt poor. Excellent! They won’t have a clue what hit them. Let’s get all their cards, the morons. I need some fine new suits, a couple of nice vacations—aaah, Bahama, Cabo, here I come. Need new clothes for the trips! The new Essence by Mail catalog has some nice threads. Yummy!”

Con men, villains, criminals are intrinsically narcissistic, with an exaggerated opinion of their own intelligence. In her book The Singing Sands, the brilliant writer Josephine Tey puts her perspective through the words of her character Inspector Grant. “Vanity is incurable. You can never convince vanity that anyone else is of the slightest importance.”

Vanity is the singular hallmark of a sociopath: Only he or she matters; everyone else is relevant only in so much as they are useful to the sociopath. They are users of people, exploiters of weaker individuals, gleeful when they can take something without paying for it. 

Through my brush with that supercilious fraud, I had the recipe for the two villains in my first novel: an entitled wealthy nobleman who uses nationalist language to gain gullible followers, and a jealous sniveling coward who bites the hand that fed him. Both foul, vile creatures don the garb of respectability through displays of wealth and nationalism. Alas, vast numbers of people still fall for this posturing today, both in India and the United States. And yes, my experience with a con man was put to good use.

Born in Mumbai, India, Nev March is a writer of mystery and historical fiction. Writing short stories, poems and novels since the age of eleven, Nev has previously published stories in children’s magazines and won Writers Digest and Maryland Writers Association contests. With four completed manuscripts, she took a hiatus from writing fiction in order to raise her family while working full time. As a member of the small Zoroastrian community, she created a community oral history project to record the stories of Zoroastrian immigrants to North America. 

After a twenty year career as a data scientist, Nev returned to writing full time in 2015 to write the first draft of Murder in Old Bombay. Her manuscript won the 2019 Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Novel Award, which launched her writing career. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons. The Spanish Diplomat's Secret comes out in September 2023.




Betty T said...

Why was it necessary to name the man’s race?

Janet Rudolph said...

In case Nev doesn't see the question: I think it's because of the magazine ordered by the Con Man.

Anonymous said...

It's also part of his description to mention his race. Would you have questioned her if the con man was White? L Hernandez

Anonymous said...

I believe so. The image of the con man is incomplete without that whatever preconceived ideas it may bring.