At the core of A Burglar’s Guide to the City is an unexpected and thrilling insight: how any building transforms when seen through the eyes of someone hoping to break into it. Studying architecture the way a burglar would, Geoff Manaugh takes readers through walls, down elevator shafts, into panic rooms, up to the buried vaults of banks, and out across the rooftops of an unsuspecting city.
With the help of FBI Special Agents, reformed bank robbers, private security consultants, the L.A.P.D. Air Support Division, and architects past and present, the book dissects the built environment from both sides of the law. Whether picking padlocks or climbing the walls of high-rise apartments, finding gaps in a museum’s surveillance routine or discussing home invasions in ancient Rome, A Burglar’s Guide to the City has the tools, the tales, and the x-ray vision you need to see architecture as nothing more than an obstacle that can be outwitted and undercut.
This book starts with a bang, detailing the life and exploits of George Leonidas Leslie. He moved to New York City in 1869 and, to quote Manaugh, “his first thoughts were that he could use his architectural skills to rob the place blind”.
Picture it – the Brooklyn Bridge under construction, elevators allowing buildings to reach higher and higher into the sky, and Leslie, building full scale replicas of bank lobbies and vaults in vast warehouses to plan his heists. At one point he and his gang were behind 80 percent of all bank robberies in the entire United States.
Oh ho!, I thought. This is going to be a heckuva book with a mix of historical how’d-they-do-its, modern thefts pulled off with technology, and action and adventure at every turn. Right?
The rest of the book reads like this:
For the burglar, every building is infinite, endlessly weaving back into itself through meshed gears made of fire escapes and secondary stairways, window frames and screened in porches, pet doors and ventilation shafts, everything interpenetrating, everything mixed together in a fantastic knot. Rooms and halls coiled together like dragons inside of dragons or snakes eating their own tails, rooms opening onto every other room in the city. For the burglar, doors are everywhere. Where we see locks and alarms, they see M.C. Escher.
Repetitions upon repetitions upon… you get the picture. Not thrilling, and kinda boring.
It feels like Manaugh is splitting the difference between two styles and doing neither very well. On one hand there’s some participatory journalism – riding with an LAPD helicopter patrol, taking a lock-picking class. He tries for Mary Roach but lacks her insight and wit. On the other hand there’s some scholarly history stuff, recounting parts of interesting robberies. But only parts. Many times Manaugh leaves out the stuff you really want to know, like how and after how long the bad guy was caught. It’s a bad sign when I want to read the books an author mentions more than the book I have in front of me.
I would have liked a stronger framework, perhaps focusing on the roles different parts of buildings (roofs, doors, walls, underground spaces, locks) play in aiding or deterring robbery. As it stands the text flits from one subject to the next, repeating itself often and relating some info second- and third-hand. (‘I spoke with the author that wrote xyz book, in which he says…’)
Now, it’s not bad. There’s some interesting information, and the audiobook narrator made even circuitous passages engaging and accessible. I would have liked more interesting info, though, along with cutting the repetition and similes.
I’m disappointed because I expected so much more from A Burglar’s Guide to the City, both from the description and first chapter. I’m still interested in this kind of architectural non-fiction – what should I read next?