A Burglar’s Guide to the City

For the past several years, I’ve been writing a book about the relationship between burglary and architecture. Burglary, as it happens, requires architecture: it is a spatial crime. Without buildings, burglary, in its current legal form, could not exist. Committing it requires an inside and an outside; it’s impossible without boundaries, thresholds, windows, and walls. In fact, one needn’t steal anything at all to be a burglar. In a sense, as a crime, it is part of the built environment; the design of any structure always implies a way to break into it.

You can see burglary’s architectural connections anywhere. Watch nearly any heist film, for example, and at some point there will be an architectural discussion: inevitably, the characters will point at floor plans or lean in close to study maps, arguing over how to get from one room to another, whether or not two buildings might actually be connected, or how otherwise separate spaces and structures—sometimes whole neighborhoods—might be secretly knit together. Seen this way, heists are the most architectural genre of all.

BurglarEntersHouse[Image: “How The Burglar Gets Into Your House” (1903), via The Saint Paul Globe].

When a burglary is committed in the real world, you often see stunned business owners stammering to morning TV crews about how strange the burglars’ method of entry was. They came in through the walls or jumped down through a hole in the ceiling—or crawled in through a drop-off chute—rather than going through the front door as the rest of us would, never using buildings the way they’re supposed to be used.

This notion—that burglary, at heart, is an architectural crime—serves as the core of my new book. It comes out in less than a month, on April 5th, from FSG. It’s called A Burglar’s Guide to the City.

I’m strangely thrilled to see it’s been categorized as “Architecture/True Crime.”

Burglars-FinalCover[Image: The complete front/back cover for A Burglar’s Guide to the City, designed by Nayon Cho].

Researching A Burglar’s Guide to the City has been a fascinating process—not to mention an incredible experience. It took me up into the sky over Los Angeles with the LAPD Air Support Division to learn how police see the city, out to visit a lock-picking group in northwest Chicago to pop open some padlocks and understand the limitations of physical security, and into the heavily fortified modular “panic rooms” designed by a retired New Jersey cop.

I spoke with a Toronto burglar who learned to use his city’s fire code as a targeting mechanism for future burglaries; I talked to the woman who arrested a kind of live-in burglar nicknamed “Roofman” who, incredibly, built a fake apartment for himself inside the walls of a Toys “R” Us; and I met the retired FBI Special Agent once tasked with tracking down a crew of subterranean bank bandits who pulled off a still-unsolved bank heist in 1986 Los Angeles, involving weeks of tunneling and a detailed knowledge of the the city’s sewer system. I spoke with one of the originators of the UK’s surreal “capture house” program, where entire fake apartments are kitted out and run by the police to trap—or capture—specific burglars, and I even visited the grave of a 19th-century super-burglar who used his training as an architect to lead a crew responsible for an astonishing 80% of all U.S. bank robberies at the time.

lapd[Image: Flying with the LAPD Air Support Division; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The book includes tunnel jobs from ancient Rome, a survey of door-breaching tools, an interview with architect Bernard Tschumi about crime and the city, some thoughts on Die Hard, even tips for the ultimate getaway from a reformed bank robber in California, and on and on and on.

In any case, I’m genuinely excited for the Burglar’s Guide to be out in the world. I can’t wait to discuss it with readers, so please check it out if you get a chance.

Meanwhile, there will be a short book tour this April and May. Keep an eye on burglarsguide.com for more information as it develops, but, for the time being, if you’re anywhere near New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, or Washington D.C., save the dates to come by and say hello.


The first event will be hosted by the incredible John M. Mossman Lock Collection at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York on Tuesday, April 5, with beer provided by my friends at Sixpoint Brewery and books for sale courtesy of The Strand Book Store. Even better, Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich will be leading a live conversation about the book—and the event itself is free, although you must RSVP.

I could go on at great length—and undoubtedly will, in the weeks to come—but, for now, consider pre-ordering a copy of the book. Thanks!

12 thoughts on “A Burglar’s Guide to the City”

  1. I’m greatly looking forward to this – I’ve had it on pre-order since December. I work with maps (CAD/GIS) and this is such a novel slant on maps and architecture. Perhaps if I get tired of my current job, I’ll take up burglary. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Karen — there are some things in the book you might particularly like, in that case, including a burglar in Toronto who used the city’s fire code to help pick future targets, and some thoughts on the sewers/buried creeks in Los Angeles, and the role they played in an unsolved tunnel job from 1986 (which is vaguely mentioned in the post here).

  2. As always, Geoff, you are on the curious and thrilling edge of ….this time a building’s precipice or innards. I’ve just ordered my copy. Hope you come to the Chapel Hill area on your tour. Best of luck.

    1. Thanks, Jeffery! I’d love to get down to Chapel Hill again some time soon, as well — nothing is in the cards in the immediate future, but I’ll let you know if I set up any book events or that sort of thing. Hope you’ve been well!

  3. Just came from your NY Times ‘Panopticops’ article and discovered via that article that you’re publishing a new book. Very very excited. The BLDGBLOG book remains one of my favorites, so I’ll be off to Amazon now to pre-order my copy. Thanks for giving us such interesting writing!

  4. Hello! Just read about you and your book,”A Burglar’s Guide to the City”. Article by Ellen Gamerman in the Wall Street Journal. I was a burglary detective for a bit over 20 years in Arlington Police, Virginia. Arlington is across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. Anyway, if you would like to talk about detectives and some methods of investigations, capture, and interviews sometime, let me know. I’d enjoy the talk.
    Burglars are THE most difficult crime to investigate. Burglars are loners; wary of the police, and moochers. They usually have no compassion for anyone, not just victims, but folks they mooch off of thereby having no address. I always say if a detective can interview a burglar, he or she can interview Any criminal.

    1. Hey Roger—thanks for the comment. I’d love to hear more about your work. I will actually be in DC on May 18th for an event at the National Building Museum, in case you are able to stop by. Either way, thanks again for the note. Enjoy the book, if you get a chance to read it.

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