House of Thieves
In the second of former architect Charles Belfoure’s novels featuring an architect as a chief protagonist (after THE PARIS ARCHITECT), a high society family’s slippery descent into a life of crime is documented in unabashedly pulpy detail. Stuffed with a bevy of Gilded Age particulars --- white-glove balls and strictly enforced rules of etiquette, Tammany Hall and revenge-seeking mob bosses, whorehouses and gambling dens --- HOUSE OF THIEVES not only tells an entertaining story but also delivers a gritty historic snapshot of New York City during its debauched heyday.
Very loosely based on the life of George L. Leslie, an architect-turned-bank robber suspected of committing 80 percent of New York's bank heists during the mid-19th century, HOUSE OF THIEVES begins with a familiarly daunting setup: George Cross, Harvard grad and brilliant mathematician on his way to Columbia graduate school, has gotten himself into a bit of hot water. Because of a persistent gambling addiction, he has amassed a whopping $48,000 debt and owes it all to James Kent --- foppish kingpin of Kent’s Gents, a scraggly crew of gangsters and sheisters out for cold, hard cash.
“It was the incredible rush of excitement when he won that thrilled [George] most. Pure euphoria. The sensation was even more pleasurable than sex… It was all he could think about or wanted to do. At every second, he felt the uncontrollable urge to bet. He had no willpower, no control over his actions; the desire had taken hold of him, like a puppeteer manipulating the wires of a marionette.”
"HOUSE OF THIEVES not only tells an entertaining story but also delivers a gritty historic snapshot of New York City during its debauched heyday."
When esteemed and well-to-do architect John Cross learns of his son’s predicament --- pay up, or else --- he vows to right George’s wrongs and begrudgingly places himself in Kent’s service. In exchange for providing Kent and crew with blueprints of his affluent clients’ estates and detailed diagrams pinpointing where most of their riches lie, Cross whittles down George’s tab. One by one, the über wealthy fall --- a shoe baron, an heiress with a summer home in Newport, and the biggest theft of all: the Pharoah Blue Diamond, on loan from Alexandria Museum of Antiques in Egypt and housed at the Manhattan Institute of Science & Technology.
But Cross’ indenture is not what one might expect, aside from the occasional narrow escape or brutal murder of an innocent bystander who can’t live to tell. As the stakes escalate higher and higher, a new and peculiar feeling emerges with each passing robbery. Rather than loathe his obligation to Kent, Cross begins to look forward to the elation that inevitably follows a successful raid. Like George, he can’t stop chasing the high.
“You can’t imagine the feeling of exhilaration I get when committing a robbery,” he thinks to himself. “Whether it’s cracking a bank vault or stealing valuables from a house, there’s a sense of intense ecstasy, a sensation like no other. The excitement comes from the fact that at any second, I might be caught. I love that feeling more than any other.”
Meanwhile, while Cross is preoccupied by hunting for clues about the next feasible target --- now joined in the charade by his beautiful wife Helen, relative of distinguished socialite Carolyn Astor, who uncovered what her husband was up to and insisted on doing her part --- his other two children, 10-year-old Charlie and 17-year-old Julia, are busy adopting their own secret lives. Charlie befriends a street urchin named Eddie and tries his hand as a newsie, slinging newspapers for change. In a bold attempt to flout what’s expected of her as a debutante, Julia courts the ever-so-handsome Nolan, a known pickpocket seemingly ripped from the pages of Charles Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST.
“All their lives, they’d been told what to do to conform: what to wear, what to eat, how to dance, and above all, with whom to associate. Now, the Cross siblings had dared to travel into a taboo world. If anyone found out about their journey, the consequences would be dire.”
In a plot that consists mostly of a succession of outlandish, just-barely-pulled-off robberies, HOUSE OF THIEVES verges on the repetitive at times. But when Cross’ long-lost older brother returns to town as a Pinkerton --- a member of a private security guard and detective agency established in the United States in 1850 --- the game of cat and mouse becomes agreeably more acute, especially when it’s revealed that a snitch is lurking hidden amidst Kent’s gang.
Will Robert catch his brother out in a lie? Will Cross ever escape his obligation to Kent and his gents? Will George ever stop gambling? And what will come of the Crosses’ ingenious partnership in duping their friends and swiping their belongings? In a madcap finale that involves a high-speed chase through an unsuspecting crowd gathered to celebrate the unveiling of Lady Liberty, HOUSE OF THIEVES comes to its expected, but nonetheless thrilling, conclusion.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on September 18, 2015