By Amy Reading
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 290 pages
Amy Reading’s The Mark Inside is exactly what the longer subtitle describes. It’s simultaneously a brief biography of J. Frank Norfleet, and a description and brief history of what was known in the early 20th century as the “Big Con”, essentially a combination of insider trading and fake stock exchanges. Norfleet, a wealthy Texas rancher falls victim to this type of con and dedicates the rest of his life to tracking down and arresting the men who had swindled him, as well as others like them. Reading’s portrayal of Norfleet hints at some of the interesting contradictions of his life. She gives a basic biographical sketch, and digs deep into his published autobiography, dissecting some of the most exciting and well-documented parts, and verifying or casting doubt with correlating sources where she can find them. Most of the second half of the book concerns the roll-up of the large con organization in Denver in the early 1920s. Here Reading is on more solid historical ground, as she can verify her facts from numerous well-documented sources. This part of the book also contains much of the history and explanation of how this particular con works. This second half of the book reads more easily, and was more interesting, with its larger cast of characters. Even though they are undeniably related, the two halves of the story seemed like an uneasy fit, with neither quite long enough for its own book. Despite this, the story was entertaining, and it will be a hit with those who like to remember that even as late as the 1920s the left half of the country was still the Wild West.
Reviewed by Katie Richards