The Sting Man tells the true story of Mel Weinberg, possibly the most audacious crook in recorded history, and the inspiration behind the hit film, American Hustle.
It presents a forensic account of how this street urchin evolved, from small-time scams in his native New York, to being hired by the FBI and ultimately snaring congressmen and senators in what now, through the passage of time, seems like a pantomime ploy: that of the fake Sheikh. However it worked so spectacularly, that in the late 1970s the scandal shook the US to its core. As one of the taglines on the back cover tantalisingly asks: how did a Bronx hustler nearly bring down the US government? Quite.
For Robert W. Greene, the reporter who interviewed Weinberg 237 times to put this story together, the task of crafting an account that is detailed, digestible and enjoyable, has been eased considerably by the sheer force of personality that is Mel Weinberg. Wisely, Greene has peppered the account with one-liners, various scenes from his scams and transcripts from tapes secretly recorded by the FBI, as he reeled in the nation’s democratically elected public servants, with promises of an under-the-table cut of a mythical Arab Sheikh’s fortunes.
At times, the level of detail – in particular, where the re-telling gets mired in the minutiae of government – may seem turgid for anyone not fascinated by US politics. But Greene never loses his reader, with regular injections of Weinberg tales – …behind Japanese lines in a steamy South East Asian jungle, and stumbling across enemy soldiers as both they, and Weinberg, try and find a native whorehouse – Weinberg aphorisms – “…when they asked me to go work for the government, they built it up and made it sound great. After a week of workin’ I figured they were even bigger bullshit artists than me” – as well as killer insights into his personality, no doubt gleaned from the extensive interviewing – ‘…as far as Weinberg was concerned, good taste was people who didn’t say “shit” at the dinner table.’
Any Cop?: Greene has, no doubt, carefully crafted – even selectively edited – the Mel Weinberg that he chose to present, but from this POV the man is pure gold, a real-life, successful Del Boy. And the account was so entertaining, this reviewer had to keep reminding himself that this was actually a work of non-fiction.