Scott W. Berg’s books include “38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End.” He teaches nonfiction writing and literature at George Mason University.
In October 1976, FBI agent J.J. Wedick Jr. supervised what he thought would be a one-day undercover operation designed to entice notorious confidence man Phil Kitzer into passing along a stolen bond or two. Twelve months, four continents and innumerable close shaves later, Wedick and his partner Jack Brennan closed the case on one of the bureau’s all-time success stories. A smoking crater lay where once had thrived an international bank fraud ring, and they’d finally collared Kitzer, the smooth-talking, hard-drinking and supremely slippery mastermind behind it all.
In outline, it’s a pretty standard, if farther-flung than usual, tale of G-men done good. But David Howard’s “Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents With the World’s Most Charming Con Man,” is no appreciation of the stoic and methodical march of justice. Rather, it’s a caper, a picaresque, an anti-Untouchables.
Posing as two young operators looking for an education in the world of high-finance fraud, Wedick and Brennan were sailing uncharted waters in an FBI that, until J. Edgar Hoover’s death in 1972, forbade its rank-and-file agents from operating undercover. Given almost no training in the craft of clandestine work, no assurances of cooperation across state and international borders, and no reliable financial support, Wedick and Brennan mostly winged it.
Often, they winged it pretty badly. At a certain point, “assumed identities begin to feel flimsy; scripts become hard to follow,” writes Howard. “Every word, every conversation carried the potential to dynamite the enterprise.” “Chasing Phil” piles up barely believable near-misses one after the other: recording devices that are nearly revealed, cover stories that come within a single forgotten detail of collapsing, after-hours rendezvous with local FBI agents that are nearly interrupted. One of Kitzer’s running jabs at Wedick and Brennan is to point out how completely they resemble federal agents; he calls them the “Junior G-Men,” while Howard describes them as “surely the first undercover operatives ever to be teased by their targets for their uncanny resemblance to undercover operatives.”
Howard spends a few solemn pages late in the book reminding the reader that what Kitzer was doing was b-a-d: nest eggs lost, dreams dashed, great pain inflicted. But watching the agents improvise their way along the edge of ruin as they chase him is mostly f-u-n. At one point, a fellow agent says, “They’re gonna make a movie out of this,” and, indeed, the seeds of a boisterous cinematic treatment lay strewn throughout the story. (Robert Downey Jr. has optioned the book and will possibly star as Kitzer.) Elvis and Vernon Presley feature in the narrative, as do Son of Sam and several big-name mob bosses. Howard’s best description of Kitzer is delivered by way of an analogy to Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton, the con man’s favorite football player: “When his opponents swarmed him and a sack seemed imminent, Tarkenton would duck, dodge, and feint and run for a big gain. He had an uncanny knack for slipping free just when trouble was closing in.”
As Kitzer drags the nervous agents all over the map, they stay at the Fontainebleau in Miami, the Graycliff in Nassau, the Mayflower in New York, the Intercontinental in Frankfurt. They sit in a suite at the Rose Bowl, and they lounge oceanside in Honolulu. Being a con man in 1977 seems almost comically easy, as anything and everything about the era works to Kitzer’s advantage: the deepening economic malaise, the lax airport security, the ease of moving money in and out of foreign locales, even the FBI’s lack of up-to-date technologies. It’s a big moment, late in the book, when the agents’ big case is finally budgeted a few megabytes on the bureau’s computers.
“Spending time with Kitzer was like skiing a few miles per hour faster than your abilities dictated, constantly hovering on the edge of a stupendous wipeout.” Wedick and Brennan’s greatest asset, outside of their never-ending luck, seems to lie in the simple fact that Kitzer likes them. And as the agents are pulled more closely into Kitzer’s orbit, so are we, so much so that when they finally confront the con man and reveal their true identities, I felt the immediate dread of betrayal more than the abstract satisfaction of justice.
Underneath all the boozy good humor of the book’s action, something profound lingers — about the ease with which Kitzer can treat all the world as one great mark and the way Wedick and Brennan can pretend to see it in the same fashion. In fact, the book’s biggest achievement is that its honest people — Wedick and Brennan — are made as human as their quarry, in many ways more so: more uncertain, more prone to error, so easily impressed by the world of financial chicanery and easy bonhomie through which Kitzer guides them.
By the same token, some corner of Kitzer’s psyche seems to want exactly what the FBI agents possess, with an equally winsome sense of longing. In one of the book’s best moments, the con man, still at the top of his game, strolls through New York, scanning the skyscrapers. “For most of them to be built,” Howard writes, “someone had to take a gamble on loaning millions of dollars. The buildings represented, in some form, trust. A group of strangers — bankers, contractors, insurers — had to believe in each other, and in a system, in a high-stakes game. From Phil’s perspective, it was miraculous that there were enough honest people to make it happen.” That Kitzer is, in that moment, about to be betrayed by two honest guys making a pretty interesting hash of being liars is the central paradox of the story — and the core of its considerable appeal.
By David Howard
Crown. 384 pp. $28