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.