Ricky Church reviews The Con Artist by Fred Van Lente…
With the San Diego Comic Con just around the corner, every fan, nerd and geek has nearly hit the height of their excitement for the annual event. This makes Fred Van Lente’s novel The Con Artist as good a time as any to read as he blends in the comic book genre with a compelling and fun murder mystery that takes place over the course of the SDCC weekend.
Famed comic book artist Mike M. heads to Comic-Con for his yearly pilgrimage to meet fans, sign autographs and speak at panels. What was supposed to be a normal weekend turns to anything but when his chief rival is shot the night before the Con with all signs pointing to Mike as the culprit. With the police breathing down his neck, mysterious bikers and ruthless executives after him as well as his ex-wife’s presence at SDCC, Mike has to figure out just how and why his rival died to clear his own name.
There is a lot to enjoy about The Con Artist for both mainstream readers and comic book fans. Van Lente puts in the book a whole lot of knowledge of the various genres ranging from comic books to sci-fi. Mike’s career as a comic book artist also helps elevate the book. It’s not very often we’d get to see the perspective of an artist, but Van Lente goes into a nice amount of depth of just how much work comic book artists put into their stories and what they put up with during these cons. This insight really helps sell the reality of the book and makes it feel like you’re reading about the big cons and industry gossip from an inside source.
Mike is a very likeable character who is funny, smart and clever. It’s easy to root for him as he tries to clear his name and uncover the true circumstances regarding the murder. He is also not without personal flaws, though, and has to overcome those during the course of the weekend. His divorce has made him withdraw from nearly all normal aspects of life as he keeps himself on the move going from con to con and ignoring his own grief. It’s an interesting arc he’s on and Van Lente gives it some nice emotional pathos as he deals with several of his ongoing issues.
Van Lente’s prose is clear, concise and easy to read. The Con Artist is a nice page turner as the mystery gets deeper and Mike becomes engrossed in more and more of it. The whodunnit aspect is great as Van Lente introduces several suspects, all with varying motives for possibly killing the victim, and figuring out who could have done it and why. The mystery moves along at a brisk pace with new information being revealed at the right amount of time. The book never really drags or gets sidetracked with a sub-plot before a new discovery is made and by the end of the book there are few loose threads left.
Another entertaining aspect for comic book fans is how Van Lente uses some characters or anecdotes as stand-ins for famous figures in the comic book industry. The influences of people within the industry range from comic legends Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter and the infamous rights dispute of Superman that co-creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel went through for much of their lives. Aside from just what comic book artists go through on these books, there is a lot of knowledge and nods to comic history that fans will enjoy. The Con Artist also goes into a fair bit of depth into how SDCC, and many other comic cons in general, have changed over the years. The book touches on how they’re now more about the big Hollywood movies or television shows about these comics rather than the comics themselves with studios using them as a means to bolster their profile. It’s an interesting perspective that Van Lente examines through Mike.
The book also includes nearly a dozen sketches from Tom Fowler, the inker on DC and Young Animal’s Doom Patrol series. Throughout the book, Mike sketches what he sees or imagines how the crime scene would have looked like and Fowler’s sketches are presented as Mike’s own. This aspect again gives a nice aspect to the book that helps sell the reality of the story and makes it a fun thing for the reader to look at. In many of the images too there are some clues that point to a new revelation that is later made, letting you examine the sketches in a new way than just thinking the art is well done.
Van Lente’s The Con Artist is an enjoyable and engrossing read with an intriguing mystery and a good protagonist. The prose moves at a good pace, the characters are funny and interesting and their arcs provide a good amount of depth to them. The deeper stuff in the book, such as the examination of comic and fan culture, not only grounds the book in reality, but offers some meaningful commentary on how the industry has changed. The Con Artist is a good book for comic book fans to read, but casual mystery readers should also enjoy this fun and engrossing mystery.