It's a Hollywood con game

''Matchstick Men: A Novel of Petty Crimes''
By Eric Garcia
(Villard, 228 pps., $22.95)

Buy it at in hardcover

Reviewed by John Orr
December 2002

A province of this column is to alert readers to new mystery authors worthy of attention. Failing that, to find worthwhile new books by established writers. Failing that, it's to warn readers about books by established writers that aren't up to snuff.

This book is from the third category.

Eric Garcia enjoyed some success with his dinosaur detective mysteries, ''Casual Rex'' and ''Anonymous Rex,'' books I keep in the same pile where I throw books with detectives that are cats.

He has abandoned reptiles for human beings with ''Matchstick Men: A Novel of Petty Crimes,'' which is already in production as a movie, with Nicolas Cage in the role of Roy, a con man, and Sam Rockwell as Roy's partner.

Frank is a pretty good grifter, but is too loose with his money, and wants to try riskier cons. Roy, a serious neurotic who thinks he needs drugs to keep himself together, has saved lots of money and is very careful about jobs.

A young girl comes along who is supposedly Roy's daughter by his failed marriage. Turns out she just can't wait to learn some cons from good old dad.

After a while Roy decides he has to get out of the criminal life and make a real home for his daughter, but Frank talks him into trying one last, big job.

One of the problems with anyone taking on confidence games as a subject is the high-jump mark set by Jim Thompson with ''The Grifters.'' Garcia stumbles on the runway with this one.

And, ''Matchstick Men'' just doesn't have characterizations that fit the plot. Roy can't be careful and smart on one page and unbelievably stupid on the next.

The other problem is that Puritan American thing of wanting the bad guys to get theirs. That is, even if we like the con man, he must be punished at the end of the book. Garcia does not rise above that. The Puritans would be so proud.