Book Review: “A Burglar’s Guide to the City,” by Geoff Manaugh

'A Burglar's Guide to the City,' by Geoff ManaughGeoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City has at least one distinction setting it apart from nearly all non-fiction titles — especially when you set aside biographies and histories, which come with their own narrative lines: it’s in development as a fictional TV series. The appeal is obvious. Consider the elements which come into play:

  • “Hacking” buildings by any means necessary: tunneling, cutting through walls, punching out windows, stowing away in delivery vehicles,  simply talking your way in…
  • The lure of cleverly planned crimes committed against often cold if not outright evil institutions: banks, jewelry retailers, the homes of the wealthy…
  • Familiar cops-and-robbers scenarios, in which clever (or not so clever) criminals are matched against shrewd (or not so shrewd) detectives and street cops…
  • The excitement of chase scenes…
  • Precedents set by hundreds — maybe thousands — of popular, successful fictional precedents, from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to Oceans ElevenThe Anderson Tapes and The Thomas Crown Affair, the Thin Man series of films, the Leverage television series…
  • Settings around the world, the phrase “the city” of the title engagingly non-specific…

No, not surprising at all that it would attract screenwriters and producers. But lost in the likely rush of media attention is one important fact: this is a heck of a good book.

It’s well-written and well-edited, and this should come as no surprise given Manaugh’s credentials. Although he’s most often cited as the proprietor of the BLDGBLOG (“Building Blog”) architecture-related blog, Manaugh is much more than a blogger. From his About page, a portion of his current statement of credentials:

In addition to this site, I’m the author of two books—the New York Times-bestselling A Burglar’s Guide to the City and The BLDGBLOG Book—as well as editor of a third, Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions. A Burglar’s Guide to the City is currently being adapted for television by CBS Studios.

My writing has been published in The New York Times Magazine (including features about self-driving cars and the LAPD Air Support Division), The New Yorker (including a piece about the “ancient roads” of Vermont), Cabinet Magazine, The Atlantic, Popular Science, The Daily Beast, Domus, Travel + Leisure, New Scientist, and many others. My article for The Daily Beast about a former Los Angeles bank robber sent overseas to plot heists against al Qaeda is currently being adapted for film by Studio 8. I have also contributed essays to multiple books, exhibition catalogs, and artist monographs, including publications by photographers David Maisel, Bas Princen, and Michael Wolf, artist Ai Weiwei, and architects Philip Beesley and Bjarke Ingels.

In addition to writing, I frequently lecture on topics related to architecture, technology, and landscape at venues around the world… Previously, I was senior editor of Dwell and a contributing editor at Wired UK, and I am former director of Studio-X NYC, an urban think tank and event space at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

In short, Manaugh knows what he’s doing—not just regarding things built, but also when he’s just hammering away at a keyboard. (Those of us who obsess about such things won’t fail to notice that he’s italicized all the publication names he lists, one after another… and not italicized the commas. See? Meticulous.)

I heard of the book when it first came out and immediately purchased it. Unfortunately, a Kindle-ized version had not yet been released; I say, “unfortunately,” because I discovered a dilemma it posed for me: When I’m reading Kindle editions of books I like, I highlight passages I might later like to refer to, and perhaps quote—a lot of such passages, in a really good book. But the opening of A Burglar’s Guide mesmerized me to the extent that I forgot even to dog-ear favorite phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. When I came to my senses, so to speak, I was almost a hundred pages in. Here’s the first bit I did dog-ear (and would have highlighted, if I’d been paying attention): “[Pseudonymous ex-professional burglar Jack] Dakswin’s interest in burglary… came down to a close reading of building exteriors and the detailed regulations that shaped them.”

I thought, y’know, “Uhhh… Wait—what?” Manaugh went on:

He had spent so much time studying [Toronto]’s fire code that he could now anticipate, to a remarkably accurate degree, what awaited him inside a given building. He had begun to notice patterns. He explained, for example, that the location of an external fire escape or emergency door, including how many of each a building had, were burglary clues hiding in plain sight and were the easiest signs to look for. These would indicate everything from how many apartments you might find per floor, to how big you might expect those apartments to be. Knowing the maximum legal distance an individual apartment could be from the nearest emergency door meant that you could also deduce the building’s layout from the placement of those exits. You could then judge, in advance, where the entryways to different apartments might be on one floor, then plan your path through the building accordingly. All this could be done before setting foot inside the building…

The book is full of such (to me) startling information, but also of shrewd but more general observations constituting almost a philosophy of burglary. Among my favorites:

  • “Burglary requires architecture.” On the surface, this sentence — repeated several times throughout the book — is too simple, too short, to mean very much. But in fact it represents just the exposed tip of an iceberg of hidden ramifications. “Without walls and thresholds.” Manaugh says, “without doorways, floors, and window frames—or even roofs, awnings, and screened-in porches—burglary would not be legally possible. It is a spatial crime, one whose parameters are baked into the very elements of the built environment.”
  • “Normal” humans are prisoners of their buildings’ architectural environment and conventions. For instance, without even thinking about it, we always enter and exit through doors, and if we find ourselves locked out we’ll go to almost any length — no matter how urgent the need, how ridiculously inconvenient the alternatives we finally choose — to avoid entering through a window, even an unlocked one. (Even locksmiths, apparently, often don’t bother to pick locks anymore: it’s simpler just to break in and unlock the door, or to break and replace the lock.) Burglars don’t care about these rules (except, I’ll bet, when in their own homes); in fact, sometimes breaking the rules — or a window — becomes such a practiced habit that they won’t even try to turn a doorknob before resorting to elaborate glass-cutting and alarm-disabling means of entry. In this way, burglars are not “normal” humans, not at all. They’re practiced violators of an unspoken code of human conduct.

You might say, well, sure — but at least they’re not hurting anyone. People get over a burglary of their home much faster than they’ll get over, say, an assault or mugging.

But Manaugh takes pains to explain how burglary affects the victims as well as the perpetrators: the lingering sense (even in failed burglary attempts) that your “space” will never again be yours, and yours alone; the looking back over your shoulder; the obsessive noticing of details like the absence of an alarm on the overhead garage door, or the unlit corner of the house beneath a bathroom window, or the way a mirror on the living-room wall from a certain angle reveals the otherwise unseeable inventory of the room’s contents…

Aside from the practicalities and the fascinating heist-movie-type stories from the point of view of burglars and their victims, Manaugh delves into less material questions.

For example, you might expect the legal definition(s) of burglary to be pretty cut-and-dry, but this is not at all true. What we commonly think of as “burglary” tends to involve physical damage to a building — the broken glass on the foyer floor, the bedroom drawers tossed about — but this is not necessarily true; that’s more often the definition of breaking-and-entering. If you’ve left a window open, and someone enters the house and removes a handful of DVDs which you don’t even notice are missing until six months later, has that person burglarized you? What if they don’t actually step through the window’s open space — suppose they simply reach through and lift a china teacup from a nearby sideboard? What if they stand a few feet away from the window and manipulate a clothes-hanger hook to do the same thing? Suppose they do the same thing to your car with the open window, or to the mailbox at the end of your long driveway? Have you been “burglarized,” in the eyes of the law (if not common sense)? Do they even have to take something?

The book will give you plenty of such questions to ponder. And along the way, you’ll find much to marvel at; in the case of inept but still successful burglars, much to shake your head at. You’ll meet historical as well as contemporary burglars, fictional as well as real ones, and you’ll meet detectives of those kinds, too. You’ll read an extended, admiring review of the first Die Hard film. Through Manaugh’s eyes, you’ll attend with him a course in “Urban Escape and Evasion” — designed to train businesspeople and the general public how to elude kidnappers or terrorists, say… but not incidentally, perhaps training a would-be bank robber in planning escape routes through a 21st-century city. You’ll find out about alarming (haha) loopholes in technology, not just in our homes and offices but on the streets, in the sky.

But — like a sharp-eyed, opportunistic thief yourself — you won’t leave empty-handed. And you won’t even have to physically break through the book’s cover and pages to pull it off: just read Manaugh’s book.

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