Go­ing un­der­cover — badly — to catch a con man.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY SCOTT W. BERG 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 far­ther­flung 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 nearmisses 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 GMen,” 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 big­name 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.


FBI agents Jack Bren­nan, left, and J.J. Wedick Jr. pre­tend to per­form in the empty ball­room of a Tokyo ho­tel in a pho­to­graph taken by con man Phil Kitzer.

By David Howard Crown. 384 pp. $28

CHAS­ING PHIL The Ad­ven­tures of Two Un­der­cover Agents With the World’s Most Charm­ing Con Man

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