In this entertainment set in the 1870s, four American con men determine that pulling off one enormous caper will give them the means to join the figurative "Four Hundred" -- that elite with enough wealth and influence to control their own destinies. The four agree that 100,000 pounds each will be sufficient and plan to take it from the Bank of England.
Sheppard reminds us that feelings then were running high against Britain for its covert support of the South during the Civil War -- and these rogues had fought for the North. But we aren't intended to take seriously this bit of patriotic justification, since our author (himself English) also manages to point out that his characters' given initials spell out "G*A*M*E."
The ploy's the thing that wins our sympathy. The Big Con tends to encourage the view that accumulated wealth is itself a con, deservedly ripe for the taking. When a poor boy from South Brooklyn can imitate a gentleman well enough not only to order clothes from a Savile Row tailor, but get him to write a letter of introduction, then surely the trappings of cultivation are exposed as mere veneer, the snobbish trick we always suspected. It seems only right that another of the rogues, Mac the forger, should be said to resemble the Prince of Wales; the role of such novels in our imagination is to suggest that identitiy can be sloughed off like the skin of a snake, and we can bring a new character to the world with each new day. (I do not mean to suggest, of course, that "The Four Hundred" indulges in such speculations; it is no metaphysical document like Melville's "The Confidence Man" or Gide's "The Counterfeiters," but simply a fiction along the lines, say, of Michael Crichton's "The Great Train Robbery.")
Every confidence man relies on trust, the victim's assurance that all is well. The pompous confidence of the Bank of England must have whetted the appetite of any number of rogues. However, the "Old Lady of Threadneedle Street," as the institution was irreverently known, was no more gullible than Queen Victoria herself. The British Empire rested on extremely solid foundations. Finally, a system of international credit known as "time bills" proves to be the crack in the vault, but even then it's several years before the scheme can commence.
During their wait, our adventurers acquire a taste for champagne at Garroway's, a crowded London establishment that reminds them of New Yorks's Delmonico's. Living separately, they meet at Garroway's for planning and drinking sessions, but if the restaurant was as crowded and attractive as Sheppard describes, the assumption by both characters and author that their frequent meetings there will go unnoticed seems inexplicable. aStill, the parties add considerably to the high spirits of the novel.
"The Four Hundred" is full of evocative situations; there is even a side jaunt to South America. And Sheppard's scoudnrels are unmistakably human, capable of careful planning as well as careless errors -- including their choice of girlfriends. The quartet do not seem particularly well differentiated, though, and perhaps this is because Sheppard, an actor and screenwriter, relies too much on pre-visualizing the film that will certainly be made. His storytelling skill is obvious, but there are times when the techniques of an interesting novel are not quite the same as those of a fast-paced film, and occassionally "The Four Hundred" tends to look uncomforably like a member of that miserable sub-genre, the film script fleshed out as a novelization.
This collision of techniques is particularly noticeable during the climatic chase scene at the end of the novel, in which three of our rogues are attempting to escape from three Pinkertons, one in Scotland, one in New York harbor and one in Cuba. Through relentless crosscutting, Sheppard manages rather ingeniously to have his characters all leaping through the air at approximately the same time, a situation that seems more heavyhanded than light hearted here but should be dazzling in the film.
Nonetheless, Sheppard has given us a skilled and rather elegant caper, cheerfully written and attractively printed. As is proper for such novels, it is light on sex and violence and contains no dirty words whatsoever. The historical background is unobtrusive and convincing, although I am not entirely willing to vouch for its accuracy. It is faily long but not at all windy. It can indeed be put down at night, but will be picked up again the next day. If such fiction is to your taste, then you should probably read "The Four Hundred" in hardcover so it will be hazy in your mind before the film comes out. I see no reason why you should not enjoy both versions.