A Burglar’s Guide to the City

Burglars Guide Cover Crop

A few hours after the news broke about the death of crime writer Donald E. Westlake, a newspaper asked me to write a tribute. In short order I did so, calling attention to his decades-long career, both under his own name and that of his primary alter ego, Richard Stark, who introduced the unsentimental antihero-heister Parker to the literary canon.

As I considered Parker, and his absurdist reflection in the Westlake-authored Dortmunder novels, I wrote: “His natural ability to observe human behavior and to follow an idea, no matter how bizarre, through to its proper, rightful finish echoed the vision of an architect.” Westlake cased his plots like a professional criminal cases the target of a heist — with attention to the details that escape the rest of us, the loopholes that make the impossible possible.

It takes about seventy-five pages for a Parker reference — from The Score, specifically — to show up in Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City. (“Knock over a city. A whole goddamn city. It was so stupid it might even work.”) But his ethos haunts the book from the get-go. When Manaugh explains, early on, why “burglary is designed into the city as surely as your morning commute,” an image flashes of Parker, walking alongside the George Washington Bridge in The Hunter, equal parts vengeful and careful, ready to plan his next crime.

Of course, Parker was fiction, limited only by Westlake-as-Stark’s imagination, observation, and curiosity. The heisters Manaugh describes, corresponds with, and finds fascinating and repellent in equal measure use their smarts in ways that fiction can only dream of making plausible. As Manaugh, an architectural critic and founder of BLDBLOG, explains in eye-opening, entertaining detail, “Slice open the city and you’ll find a dozen [burglars] tucked up inside, liked some strange diorama at the natural history museum.” Burglary turns out to be architecture’s absurdist reflection.

The first of this carnival of characters is George Leonidas Leslie, the “King of Heists,” a former architect estimated to be “behind an incredible 80 percent of all bank robberies in the United States” throughout the 1870s. Leslie’s way of work — and indeed burglary is, for those who excel at it, work — was audacious at the time and later shamelessly copied. Manaugh writes that Leslie was “arguably responsible for establishing what would later become the well-worn Hollywood trope of the duplicate vault: a detailed replica of the eventual target, assembled in order to practice and implement sophisticated methods of entry.”

Sophisticated methods of entry are, of course, the point of burglary, which is why most of the book is devoted to the ever-more-complicated ways of finding them and combating them. Manaugh shadows an elite LAPD unit more likely to find burglars by air than on the ground, thanks to Los Angeles’s uniquely sprawling topography. He sits in on a lock-picking session, only to learn how useless most locks are and that “equipment seemingly more appropriate for laparoscopic surgery” offers the best method to get someone into a place they aren’t supposed to get into.

One of the most fascinating sections centers on the “capture house,” a program used in Leeds, England, a few years ago but spreading to many other cities since. The gist is to create a space — apartment, house, or something like it — tailored to what the burglar expects to see when he (and burglars are more likely to be male) breaks in, with only a little bit off-kilter — a difference the burglar is only likely to notice after it’s too late. For the arrest is inevitable: almost everything inside the apartment is tagged with a chemical residue visible under UV light. “The perverse brilliance of a capture house comes from the fact that only the most abjectly paranoid burglars would ever suspect that [what] they’ve broken into is somehow not real . . . a decoy, a mirage, or trap.”

Manaugh also spends a great deal of time learning the burglar’s mind, thanks to one Jack Dakswin, a pseudonymous figure who claims to have given up burglary for good in favor of working in the security industry. Dakswin was a careful planner who reveled in defeating the seemingly impenetrable fortress qualities of buildings. So why did he give it up? Because, he lamented, “to his mind, burglary seemed to have lost its cultural appeal, its romance, its hold on the popular imagination. Now people just steal PINs or send phishing emails.” Indeed, the NYPD reported burglary “plummeted nearly 85 percent in the last twenty years alone in New York City.”

To his credit, Manaugh knows that burglary straddles the line between entertainment at a distance and stunning loss of privacy up close. At first, despite warnings from the law enforcement people Manaugh spoke with, “it was all too easy to be seduced by mystic visions of slipping into buildings in ways no architect had ever imagined.” He doesn’t fully reckon with it until a crime like the ones he’s been writing about strikes too close for family comfort. The effect is bracing: “Burglary loses any sense of architectural glamour when you call it a home invasion or when you witness the violence of a smash and grab.”

He does not explicitly say so, but the fun-house-mirror relationship between burglary and architecture is that the planning is all head, but the aftermath is all heart. It is equally easy to imagine burglary through a rakishly appealing image fostered by novels and films, but afterward — the smashed belongings, the lost privacy, or worse, when people are raped, maimed, and murdered in the process — the lie of that romantic view is held up for all to see. I wish Manaugh had probed further into that darkness. A subject like John Maclean, the “Superthief” of 1970s Florida who doubled as a serial rapist, largely evading justice for his crimes, may have illuminated this quandary with clarity.

Still, I cannot think of a more informed, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable tour guide through the historical and contemporary intersection of burglary and architecture than Geoff Manaugh. A Burglar’s Guide to the City makes disparate connections seem obvious in hindsight, and my worldview is altered a little bit more, and far for the better, as a result. We’ll never know, but I suspect Donald Westlake would have enjoyed it — and perhaps been a little unsettled by it, too.