By Oliver WangMay 12, 2016
A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh
For Geoff Manaugh, author of the new A Burglar’s Guide to the City, it’s not the gang’s spoils or fate he’s interested in but their methods; how they used the city’s storm sewer system to drive compact Suzuki 4x4s to and from their excavation site where they drilled through 100-plus feet of soil and concrete to reach the vaults. The city’s sewer tunnels were never, of course, built with recreational sports vehicles in mind, let alone to create a subterranean drive-through for robbers seeking unauthorized bank withdrawals. However, by exploiting the city’s infrastructure in unforeseen ways, Manaugh suggests that the Hole in the Ground Gang created a “topology pursued by other means,” one that opens up “a new science of the city” in which “shortcuts, splices, and wormholes” reshape our understanding of the built environment.
Though A Burglar’s Guide to the City is filled with other colorful exploits, it’s far less a handbook for would-be thieves and instead uses their craft as a springboard into a heady series of interrogations of urban design and architecture. For Manaugh, the burglar may be a morally dubious figure who undermines our “very idea of personal space and dignity,” but he also admires how burglary activates a different awareness of space, exposing the hidden vulnerabilities within well-intended blueprints and master plans. Los Angeles, for example, became known as the bank robbery capital of the United States not only because we have a multitude of banks, but also because so many of them were located near freeways which gave robbers a fast break to escape. Or consider Bill Mason, an ex-burglar Manaugh profiles, who became so adept at deciphering municipal building codes that he could mentally construct the layout of an apartment simply by scanning the placement of exterior fire escapes. As such, Manaugh concludes that, “[i]t is burglars and police, not architects or urban planners, who most readily and consistently show us […] these other routes and spaces hidden in some unrealized dimension of the metropolis.” To put it even more simply, he writes, “burglars use cities better.”
Manaugh mixes pithy prose — and occasional dabs of purple — to wax philosophically about how “[b]urglary is the original sin of the metropolis […] a deviant counternarrative as old as the built environment itself.” As he repeatedly reminds us, “burglary requires architecture” since the main thing that defines it isn’t the loss of goods but rather, an incursion into physical space. Few other crimes have such an explicitly spatial component, leading attorney Minturn Wright III to write in a 1951 legal critique that burglary mostly exists as a legal category thanks to “the magic of four walls.” For these reasons, Manaugh elevates burglars above petty criminal status and instead, characterizes them as “drunk Jedis of architectural space,” “dark wizards of cities and buildings,” and “stowaways of the metropolis, hidden deliberately in the shadows.”
A Burglar’s Guide to the City is bestrewn with similar, entertaining turns of phrase but as a whole, its structure is ironically (appropriately?) labyrinthine, filled with tangential side passages and discursive stairways that don’t necessarily lead anywhere specific. Besides the aforementioned profiles of real-life burglars there are also long discussions of surveillance technology and fake “capture houses” that law enforcement uses to entrap thieves. If you’ve ever wanted to know how to pick locks or escape from a wrist tie, Manaugh shares his experiences with both. Your favorite heist flick is likely to get at least passing mention, if not several thousand words, assuming that film is Die Hard, which he praises as “a film about the misuse of architecture.” Manaugh is inherently excited at nonlinear explorations of space, and he clearly applies those same principles to writing the book itself.
The one anchor, to the degree there is any, is Manaugh’s continual delight in thinking about how burglars upturn our most basic assumptions about how buildings work, describing their illicit activities as constituting an “alternative form of architectural criticism.” Take the doorway for example. For most people, the door isn’t merely the best way to move room to room but the only way. It’s why we lock our doors when we leave our room, lending ourselves the illusion of security. But as Manaugh points out: What if someone simply carves a new door in a wall with a saw or blunt force instrument? Most of us — the door people, if you will — are to him, “spatial captives in a world someone else has designed for them […] too scared to think past the tyranny of architecture’s long-held behavioral expectations.” By this token, if the rest of us are “mere slaves to architecture,” then it’s easy to see why Manaugh would elevate burglars as a more liberated figure insofar as they remake the built environment to conform to their needs rather than being hemmed in by as arbitrary and abstract a thing as a door.
For all this lofty framing, A Burglar’s Guide to the City also emphasizes the pragmatic nature of burglary. As I was finishing the book, I began to play a new video game, Superhot, a minimalist first-person shooter with a time-stopping twist. Like most first-person POV games, mastering the built environment is fundamental to play. Each level of Superhot is set in an enclosed area — a laboratory, a small bar, an underground garage — and as your character is beset by armed enemies, you quickly learn how to turn columns, door frames, and stairwell corners to your tactical advantage. There’s a whole subgenre of popular games with “stealth” features, such as Hitman and Metal Gear, which incentivize players to pay attention to enemy sight lines and blind spots; and even in guns-blazing shooters like Call of Duty or Halo, one quickly understands the importance of a strategically placed crate or boulder as spatial sanctuary. If gaming offers unintentional lessons in burglary tradecraft, it’s no surprise that burglars often think of their trade as a game. The aforementioned Bill Mason saw his targets as such, proclaiming, “hell or high water, I would find a way to solve the puzzle.”
The idea of burglary as gameplay highlights how the crime itself requires a rational, studied approach if you hope to avoid detection and capture. In what you could describe as the book’s advice section, Manaugh outlines the risk factors behind which domiciles are more likely to get robbed. A corner house, near a freeway on-ramp, offers a quick escape route versus a cul-de-sac, where police can box you in. Likewise, living near a forest offers cover to a fleeing burglar but living next to a school means thieves need to be wary of being “watched by paranoid parents.” Sliding doors are easily popped off their rails without having to break the glass but you can balance the odds in your favor with a “Beware of Dog” sign (actual dog not required).
Not to bury the lede, but all of this may be rather academic as the golden age of burglary is long behind us. Rates have plummeted in most major cities over the last 20 years. Partially, this may be because law enforcement advancements have made successful burglaries more difficult: a major, metropolitan police department likely has helicopters armed with infrared cameras that can literally see through walls. It’s perhaps more the case that we now have easier ways to relieve people of their material goods. “Now people just steal PINs or send phishing emails,” Manaugh writes with a seeming sigh.
As one of his last chapters emphasizes, when real-life crimes like those of the Hole in the Ground Gang recede from our collective memories, it’s the realm of popular fiction where burglary still remains present via the trope of the heist film, a.k.a. “the most architectural genre of all.” That includes blockbusters such as the aforementioned Die Hard, and the original and remade versions of both The Italian Job and the Ocean’s 11 franchise. Even the upcoming Star Wars stand-alone film, Rogue One, seems pitched as a heist film of sorts. (One can imagine the incredible opportunities for a fractal incursion into a structure like a Death Star.) As abstract as some of Manaugh’s other ideas can be, even a mediocre heist film (e.g., Tower Heist) can brilliantly illustrate his point of how burglars bring into relief the “competing methods for the use of architectural space, which then battle it out on-screen for tactical supremacy.” I think of Fast Five, arguably the most entertaining film in the Fast & Furious franchise which, for all its clutch/shift shots and vehicular absurdities, is basically a heist film where the protagonists smash and grab a money vault, inside a police station, by driving a militarized SUV through a concrete wall. Doors? They don’t need no stinking doors.
Heists, real and imagined, haunt us, Manaugh suggests, because they continually recast the burglar as a “nearly supernatural bandit,” able to defeat any spatial limitations they’re presented with. Where we see walls, doors, locks, and other obstacles, the burglar sees nothing but possibilities. In seeking to defeat architecture, the burglar may very well be architecture’s most optimistic critic.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.