Only When I Larf - 1968

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Plot summary

This is a comedy thriller about three con artists, Silas, Liz and Bob, and their capers in the 'sixties putting one over big corporations and corrupt government officials alike. The story begins in New York, where the gang pull off a massive con involving investment in a fake aluminium mining company.

Success after success however leads to petty jealousies between them and they almost screw up on a scam involving a corrupt African defence minister, to whom they sell crate after crate of scrap metal which he believes is the latest in UK weapons technology. But their luck runs out and the minister sees through their scam; the gang only escape from the embassy in the nick of time, licking their wounds.

Bob, the youngest of the three, becomes increasingly attracted to Liz, Silas' partner, and is anxious to lead his own scams to show Silas he's got what it takes. The gang set out to undertake one last big con job in the Middle East - led by Bob - involving millions of dollars of forged US government bonds, fake Sheikhs and a Land Rover fitted out for the desert. Will this be their last hurrah from the criminal stage?

Why it's enjoyable

Long before the BBC’s Hustle series, this story draws on the idea of the glamour of the master conman. It portrays a group of con artists in a story that has an authentic sixties tang to it, with the second world war and the last days of the British Empire still readily apparent; the military connections of Silas recall the days when Britain was a global power and yet much of the army was full of con artistes and petty thieves.

The story is quite light and didn't win prizes for originality, but it’s an entertaining story and as ever with Deighton it’s the details in the characterisation that stands out on the page. Particularly interesting is that, by using alternate chapters from the first person perspectives of the three main characters, Deighton helps the reader slowly understand the characters' different motivations and perceive the tensions which threaten to undermine their confidence in each other as team members.

Sample dialogue

'"I can't bear the idea of live lobsters being crammed up inside these crates," I said. "It gives me the creeps. I'd sooner have a frozen lobster than a tortured one."

"You must not be squeamish," said Awawa. "In my country, they do worse things than that to men."'

Related facts

To secure the film deal for Only When I Larf, Len Deighton had 150 spiral-bound copies of the book printed. These are the rarest Len Deighton items available and are much sought-after by collectors. The pages are in foolscap and appear as typed content - seemingly, straight from Deighton's typewriter.

The US edition of the novel was not picked up when the film came out, and did not appear in the US until the Mysterious Press produced a limited edition boxed set version of the novel, and subsequent standard first edition, in 1986.

OnlyWhenILarf

Only When I Larf, UK first edition, 1968

A lost book

Deighton talked with a number of crooks and representatives of the demi-monde of crime to gather the stories on which this tale is based. He did plan to write a history of the con artist, but this never came to fruition.