American Hustle – David O Russell’s Oscar-tipped film with the big hair and the big cast – is not, in case you were wondering, a Transatlantic take on the antics of Mickey Bricks, Albert Stroller and Ash “Three Socks” Morgan.
No, the 70s set tale of duplicity, fast-talking and corruption was based on a true story that nearly cleared the decks of the American political establishment.
The so-called Abscam scandal – which netted eight congressmen and senators – shook the country to its core and bookended a disgraceful decade that had begun with the Watergate.
At its heart was the improbable figure of rough diamond Mel Weinberg, a two-bit hustler straight from the Bronx who, in one of the many unlikely twists in this book, becomes a slick, feted international high-stakes financial broker, scamming millions from serious businessmen with fake loan deals.
The Sting Man is a re-working of the original 1981 book by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Robert W Greene and it is a formidable piece of work. Based on 237 interviews over 10 months, Greene is forensic, fascinating and fascinated.
Mel Weinberg shouldn’t exist, there’s no way he should prosper, but he does. And all those tiny – even banal details – all ground Greene who, one senses, is simply in love with the through-the-looking-glass romance of this story.
The conman has an aura – the loveable rogue, never conning an honest man, the Robin Hood – and Greene paints a detailed picture of a someone who can’t believe he’s getting away with this stuff.
Weinberg doesn’t run amok forever though. But when he comes to the attention of the FBI he even manages to turn his bust into a profitable enterprise, with the government utilising his unique skill set and funding his outrageous lifestyle.
He goes into business with the law enforcers and his legendary sting operation Abscam, that began as a means of targeting counterfeiters, ends by almost toppling a government.
“I like Mel Weinberg,” writes Greene (who died in 2008). “He is different. But, in many ways, he is more honest than many of the people I know. And when he lies, he does it with verve.”
It reads like a novel and feels like a con job. But, amazingly, it’s all true.
The Sting Man
By Robert W Greene (Penguin)