The spiv's tale

<strong>Spanish Fly</strong>

Will Ferguson, <em>Harvill Secker, 386pp, £12.99</em>

Everyone loves a good conman. They can switch suitcases with dazzling dexterity, they get to say things like “Step on it” to their getaway driver, and they always look great in a tailor-made suit. Jack “Weaties” McGreary, of Paradise Flats, Texas, is no exception. This extra-smart lad (he gets tips on how to woo the ladies from Ovid’s “The Art of Love”) escapes a life of salt-shovelling poverty when he falls in with Virgil and Miss Rose, the self-styled “aristocrats of the criminal set”. What follows is a heady mix of jitterbugging, swindling and double-double-crossing, set against the whisky-scented backdrop of America in 1939.

Ferguson’s USA, despite his lovely, languid prose, is kitsch – all sharp fedoras, slinky cars and smoke-wreathed women. He tries to set the corruption of Jack’s wisecracking cronies against the thrum of the Second World War, but the snatches of newspaper headlines are a mere conceit, designed to lend the book depth. The war never feels real – but then, perhaps, that is the point.

This is a richly atmospheric novel that seduces you – just as Jack seduces – with its reckless hedonism, feats of incredible ingenuity and fabulous costumes. It just never quite rises above the level of (excellent) pastiche.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism