The writing on the wall about ART OF DARKNESS



TEACHING SOCIOLOGY, October 2008

"I
f you ever wanted to know what it is really like to be an undercover operative working in diverse settings then this book is for you. This is a fascinating and compelling book that describes the variety of ploys, stratagems, techniques, and methods used by undercover agents. There is no aspect of being an undercover agent that the author does not discuss in a sophisticated yet absorbing manner. ... The author interviewed people associated with federal, local and private law enforcement agencies involved in a variety of undercover operations. She interviewed those who train people in this art as well as the operatives themselves. In addition, she observed undercover recruits and veterans as they were being trained. However, she did more than just observe and ask questions, she also participated in some of the field role-playing exercises the trainees performed. The book is rich in both analyses and descriptions of such things as: how undercover agents create and internalize a “false identity,” create believable cover stories, switch from their real to their false identities, and cope with the ever-present possibility of their covers being “blown.”

    The author indicates that undercover methods have been used to investigate a diverse plethora of illegal activities, among them: traffic in drugs, sex, immigrants, weapons, exotic animals, counterfeit currencies, organized crime and terrorism. After briefly describing the history of undercover work, the different types (decoy, light and deep) and how it has changed over the years, Schneider goes into the nitty gritty aspects of it. This takes up most of the book and is the part I found most enthralling and relevant as a sociologist.

    The author is not a sociologist or other type of behavioral scientist, per se. She is a writer and teacher about body-based learning and bodily expressions of culture. Her academic position is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies. Thus she does not explicitly show how her data are exemplifications of many sociological and social psychological concepts, issues and perspectives. Yet, as I was reading the book, I was able to relate and apply many of the points she and those she interviewed made, to a variety of sociological topics. For example, her vivid real-life anecdotes regarding various dimensions of undercover work brought to mind virtually all of Erving Goffman’s work (which she selectively references). In addition, sociological/social psychological concepts and issues were also applicable to much of her data, such as: person-role fit, role conflict, identity transformations, role strain, multiple identities, role exit and entrance, self-monitoring, occupational socialization, master status, role distance, self-selection phenomenon, emotional labor, and working personality.

    A major plus of the book is how the author seamlessly integrates major points with quotations from undercover operatives, their instructors and other law enforcement personnel. She also makes use of movies and episodes of Allen Funt’s Candid Camera show to illustrate facets of undercover work.

    Schneider observes that while there are many similarities between undercover operations and the acting profession, as undercover police officer Jerry VanCook notes, “There is one major difference between doing Shakespeare in the park and working undercover: the audience that doesn’t find your portrayal of Othello convincing may show their disapproval by throwing tomatoes at the stage—the bad guys you haven’t convinced tend to throw bullets.”

    The level of discourse is similar to pieces in the New York Times magazine. The book would certainly be suitable for anyone aspiring to a career in law enforcement in general and as an undercover operative in particular. Thus professors teaching courses in criminal justice would want to consider adopting this book. In addition, since the book is so rich in dimensions of undercover work that are exemplars of behavioral science concepts and topics, adventurous professors could have their students taking micro theory or social psychology courses identify and discuss them. It would be a great exercise and result in deeper processing of the material. It would also show the relevance of the sociological concepts. Since being an undercover agent is a kind of extreme form of covert participant observation, the book would be useful for graduate courses in methodology that emphasize participant observation. The problems, dilemmas and strains inherent in this form of research are illustrated and discussed. A good example is the strain such work places on marriages. Very few, if any, undercover agents have happy home lives, according to the data.

    The book has endnotes and a quite extensive bibliography for readers who would like to do further research about the topic."

-Michael Klausner, University of Pittsburgh-Bradford


Deception is not strictly the avenue of the criminal

"Art of Darkness: Ingenious Performances by Undercover Operators, Con Men, and Others is a look at the many uses of deception and how it has been applied on any and all sides of the law. Gathering complex tales of how these disguises have been used to track down con men and how con men have swindled thousands of dollars and made their form of crime something to be viewed as an art form, Art of Darkness is an intriguing piece of nonfiction all the way through ... highly recommended for community library true crime collections."

--James Cox, The Midwest Book Review


"Sara K Schneider has produced a fascinating, keenly intelligent, and thoroughly engaging book about 'street acting by undercover operators, con men and others'. Aptly titled ART OF DARKNESS, Schneider's book explores the gamut of identity alteration, whether that alteration is for the support of the law by undercover investigators or by con artists, and in doing so she encourages the reader to become aware of identity theft and crime recognition as well as writing what must be the best documented resource for actors, for students of character behavior, for those who are seeking the secrets of the con games, and for law enforcement officers on the shelves today.

"The real identity game is neither about the individual body nor the solo self. Rather, it is socially constructed, embedded in the interplay between my perceptions and yours of what I 'might' be, between the shape of the nest you make for my identity project and the one I make for yours. Identity play, this book argues, takes place not in the 'self', but in the 'scene." And with this introductory statement, Schneider takes us through countless interviews and quotations by those in the game of cover. She explores the techniques required to become an undercover person - how to talk the talk, and respond to the intricacies of the milieu into which the undercover person wishes to 'disappear', intricacies that of course include dress, stance, manner of walking and movement, etc that match the new environment the undercover person seeks to absorb. She then moves us into the realm of undercover work within the law enforcement arena, explaining how the possibility of a good cop becoming a bad cop is a natural risk.

The other aspects of ART OF DARKNESS that will apply to all readers include the fake IDs and forged birth certificates, only two examples of how our identities can be stolen or new identities can be manufactured with relative ease. She spends pages explaining both the simple fast con games that clutter the streets and the more subtle con games to which we all may fall victim. And as a summing up of this book she becomes more philosophical about the entire process of identity alteration and the terminal side effects it can produce.

Dr. Schneider writes and teaches about body-based learning and bodily expressions of culture and directs the Center for Body Lore and Learning in Chicago, Illinois. She is a very bright woman who obviously understands human behavior as well as anyone. If there is a flaw with this book it is the placement of the writing on the pages: too much eye space is taken with indented and extended quotations that disrupt the reader's focus on the flow of the narrative. Granted, this makes for a superb textbook resource book style, but ART OF DARKNESS is so much more than that. This is a book the average reader will find intoxicating in its information and in the succinct manner in which Sara K. Schneider writes."

--Grady Harp, Amazon Top Reviewer #7


What's your cover story?

"I suggest that ART OF DARKNESS be required reading for a behavioral psychology class, or for law enforcement officers considering training and assignment as undercover operatives, or perhaps even for those enrolled in a school of acting."

--Joseph Haschka, Amazon Top Reviewer


"Sara K. Schneider's book Art of Darkness captures the the essence of a number of undercover operators that I have had the pleasure of knowing on a social basis over the years. They are the kind of people you would want in your foxhole when a situation is in extremis. It is as if Sara was able to look into their soul and figure out what drives them to do this very dangerous work--and most times without any recognition for what they had accomplished."

--Edward Pope

"Ever want to disappear? If so, here's a guidebook for doing so. Through personal interviews, Sara has managed to unveil the virtuoso identity techniques employed by undercover operatives, fugitives, pranksters, forgers, con artists and federally protected witnesses. Here are the secrets of obtaining fake IDs, building a cover story, maintaining believability, and dealing with threats to their identities, all without formal theatrical training. Here are case histories of individuals who may be criminals, law enforcement officers who adopt criminal techniques, criminal informants and hoaxers and impersonators who do it for the challenge as well as for the gain. As Sara points out, Allen Funt's Candid Camera series on television employed many of the con techniques she discusses here. But perhaps most of us are actors of sorts-after all, Shakespeare did say that all the world's a stage and we are merely players."

--Tom Elliott, Mensa Bulletin


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