16 July 2018

Review - The Con Artist by Fred Van Lente

The Con Artist
Fred Van Lente (Illustrated by Tom Fowler)
Quirk, 10 July 2018
PB, 287pp

Source: Advance copy from publisher (thank you Jamie!)

I enjoyed Van Lente's previous book, Ten Dead Comedians, a reworking of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None so I was pleased to see this coming out. Set among the crammed exhibition halls and frenzied parties of San Diego Comic Con and featuring ten illustrations by Tom Fowler, this book follows the unravelling of Mike Mason's life over four days - and features some sharp asides about the comics business and fandom in general.

Mike is an intriguing if (initially) less than likeable central character. Conventions are his life. Since his marriage collapsed and he dropped out of illustrating comics himself, he's lived a wandering life, travelling from con to con (he confesses at one point that, as there are some times of year no cons take place, he does sometimes have to resort to his parents' home... to his care). Mike makes his living undertaking commissions from fans - there are some pretty, um, interesting poses that they will pay to have superheroes drawn in - but not, we gradually learn, actually illustrating any comics.

When Mike runs into an old enemy, Danny Lieber, the man for whom Mike's wife left him, but also "the most hated man in the industry" (though we meet others who might equally deserve the title) he can't resist taking a swing at him. But things turn sour when Danny is murdered - with Mike now the No 1 Suspect, his life is plagued by two wise-talking cops. Can he track down the true killer, work out what's going on and finish those commissions?

Featuring many well known - and some lesser known - Comic Con attractions, from a five hour long awards dinner to geek burlesque, this book gives a rather different insight into events from that which you may be used to, whether or not you're a Comic Con attendee. In particular Mike's speech about bad treatment of comics creators hits, I think, very close to home. But we also get the brash and the over the top, from cosplay to live action roleplay to hotels and convention centres festooned with storeys-high depictions of characters.

Despite the trapping this is, though, at bottom a murder mystery - and a rather effective one at that. The clues are there to be seen (some of them literally, in Fowler's drawings - look at them closely) but I must admit, I didn't spot the killer until late on and even then, I had to wait for the denouement to understand everything.

Whether as a celebration of geek life or a murder mystery, this is an excellent read and I hope that Van Lente returns to the form soon.

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