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Tori Telfer on Con-Artists, Representation, and Deadly Women

Confident Women Author on Con-Arists, Representation, and Deadly WomenNS: In Confident Women: Swindlers, Grifters, and Shapeshifters of Feminine Persuasion, you spotlight notorious female con-artists from across the world. What first drew you to their stories? What made you want to sit down and write about them?
Tori: I had finished a book all about female serial killers (which we’ll get to in the next question) and I still felt a pull towards writing about female criminals, but to be frank, I couldn’t deal with any more serial killers for the time being. So I was thinking about other sorts of crime, and some of the most colorful ones—lady pirates, for example—had already been written about, so I kept searching. It took me a while to land on con women, but once I thought of it, and realized that they’d hadn’t been written about in any comprehensive, female-specific way, well, let’s just say I sent my agent the world’s fastest email, basically screaming, This is what I want to do! Their stories are just so twisty and compelling, I think any writer couldn’t help but be drawn to them.
NS: Before you wrote Confident Women, there was Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History, which explores some of the most cunning female serial killers who’ve gone under the radar, especially compared to their male counterparts. Both titles shed light on the obscure—and often deadly—crimes of a handful of people. Why do you feel it’s important female stories of this nature be told? Why do you think they have historically been understated or underrepresented in conversations around criminality and criminal psychology?
Tori: I’m glad you used the word obscure, because I do love writing about crimes that most people haven’t heard of. I don’t want to climb too high on a soapbox and declare that my work is particularly important—there are certainly much more timely, pressing, politically-charged books being published every day—but I do think that in the true crime genre, female criminals are often forgotten about or given the Jodi Arias treatment (sexy femme fatale!). So it doesn’t hurt to push back against that from time to time.
One of the reasons female criminals aren’t written about so extensively is a harmless one: there just aren’t as many. Most murders, for example, are committed by men. I once referred to this as the “upside-down world of feminism” in an article, because this is a place where we don’t want more representation—i.e., I don’t want women to start murdering just as much as men. (How about everyone murder less, huh?) But of course, the fact that there are fewer female criminals than male ones doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and leaving them out of the conversation is just naïve. Other reasons they’re left out: garden-variety sexism, boredom (an incorrect idea that only the male criminals have the really interesting stories), a reluctance to perceive women as capable of violence.
My books don’t really touch on this, since they are mostly historical, but the population of female inmates in the US is increasing at a terrifying rate. There are lots of reasons for this—harsh sentencing laws, etc.—it’s not that women are, like, becoming more bad. But the existence of incarcerated women is a very pressing issue today and not one we should be ignoring.
NS: Is there one story in Confident Women that stood out the most?
Tori: I could never pick a favorite! But one that particularly haunts me is the sad Hollywood tale of Bonny Lee Bakley, who is best remembered for being murdered and whose celebrity husband, the actor Robert Blake, was found not guilty of her murder (but most people think he did it). I dive into Bonny’s life before she met Robert. She was quite the successful con woman, and made a lot of money with her mail-order porn scams, but she was always drawn to fame, and in the end, it destroyed her.
NS: What are some interesting facts you learned about ‘the art of the con’ from writing Confident Women?
Tori: To be a successful con woman, you have to lean in to all the gendered stereotypes that you might otherwise wish to avoid. Pretend to be weak and helpless! Pretend to be a femme fatale! Pretend to be less scientific, more emotional! That’s how you get ‘em. Also: never underestimate the power of a great wig, keep your getaway car full of gas, and if you have a distinct physical trait—a lot of freckles, say—be very careful, because it may get you caught. Best to appear bland and unassuming, so that no one ever thinks to write a book about you.
NS: Can you recommend some great and accurate con-artist shows and/or films featuring female con-artists that readers of Confident Women may be interested in?
Tori: I love the 1941 film The Lady Eve, in which a con woman seduces an awkward snake expert who then dumps her and so she pretends to be a rich woman and seduces him yet again. Not sure it’s terribly accurate, but it sure is fun. The 2019 film Hustlers is based on a real story of dancers who drug Wall Street businessmen and then steal their money. I have to say, I didn’t love the gender-swapped Oceans 8—it felt unsatisfying to see women cast in a traditionally male heist movie. The women in my book are rarely pulling off straightforward heists; they’re conning in different, often subtler ways. Not that I don’t love a good heist, mind you!
NS: What’s next for you? Can you share any details about future projects you’re working on?
Tori: I’m currently very focused on my podcast Criminal Broads, which features female criminals of all stripes, as well as profiles of women who fight crime. I have some exciting things up my sleeve for the podcast. But I’m also tooling around with ideas for a third book. I’ve written about people doing bad things for quite some time now, and I’m kinda interested in people who are doing…good things. But there will still be crime involved.