At the start of the year I published my 2021 book awards in my bookish newsletter (have you signed up yet?). I delighted in making up the categories. If I do awards for 2022, A Burglar’s Guide to the City might win Missed It By That Much (though my actual awards I tried to keep positive). Geoff Manaugh’s promise of a foray into the ways burglars exploit, undermine, or otherwise abuse architecture for nefarious ends sputters out into an unimpressive reflection on how different buildings are different, and some people are bad and do bad things.
Let’s start with what this book could have and should have been. This book should have looked at the intersection of crime and architecture—and to some extent it does, more on that later—and, crucially, sought to demonstrate cause and effect through case studies. I want you to explain to me how burglars who target residential homes in the suburbs are different from burglars who target bodegas in the inner city or warehouses at the harbour. How does the layout of a building, its materials, and its location inform the way a heist is done? Give me the greats from history, and explain how the heists benefited from—or were stymied by—the architecture of their target.
The book is at its best when Manaugh does exactly that. The sections with some historical anecdotes, the parts where he explains how burglars benefit from easy access to drywall knives, those are all cool. But for a book that is just short of three hundred pages, I took way too long to read this, and it is entirely because most of the book is boring.
Despite pretending that this book is about burglars, too much of Manaugh’s information comes instead from law enforcement. The bulk of his research seems to have happened via interviews with police officers, federal agents, or retired versions thereof—including ridealongs and other activities that I am sure were super fun for him, but did I really need him to talk about getting to see the houses from The Brady Bunch or The Jeffersons during a helicopter ride? Why would I care that so many people in Los Angeles have Oakland Raiders logos tiled at the bottom of their pool? Back to the burglary, Geoff.
But seriously, my general ACAB leanings these days, while not making me totally uninterested in stories of catching criminals, made me feel less interested in learning about burglary from law enforcement’s point of view. As Manaugh points out towards the end of the book, law enforcement only knows the tactics of the burglars it caught.
Such an excellent premise, such an incredible misuse of it resulting in a disappointing book.