Book review: ‘House of Thieves’ compelling work of historical fiction
House of Thieves
by Charles Belfoure
Charles Belfoure is one of my new favorite up-and-coming authors. As with his first the book, “The Paris Architect,” Belfoure uses his architectural knowledge to create a great work of historical fiction in his second novel, “House of Thieves.”
This is the story of the Cross family in 1886. John Cross is a New York architect who benefits from the help of his aunt, Caroline Astor. With this connection, the Cross family is quickly becoming part of New York City’s elite society, with many events to attend and people to see.
John’s son, George Cross, is a newly graduated teacher who hopes to serve the underprivileged. Yet George has a gambling problem the rest of his family knows nothing about until his debts come due to Mr. Kent, who takes this knowledge to George’s father. Mr. Kent is a well-to-do society man, but to the underworld, he is a man not to be taken lightly. Mr. Kent does not hold back and will not blink an eye if someone gets in the way of what he wants.
John Cross is not sure what to do about his son, but being a loving and devoted father, he accepts Mr. Kent’s proposition to join his gang of thieves in order to pay off George’s debt. Mr. Cross uses his knowledge and blueprints of the mansions he has designed to help the gang rob homes of the elite. This becomes John Cross’ ticket to the underworld of New York City.
As John becomes more and more preoccupied with his new “adventures,” he become less aware of the lives of his other family members. George cannot overcome his gambling problem, John’s younger son, Charlie, is running amuck through side streets of New York and his daughter, Julia, is set to debut into society. Julia has been set with so many new rules leading up to her debut that she finds her own outlet after watching a pickpocket in action and takes it upon herself to find him.
The Gilded Age brought forth many great architectural designs, including the Statue of Liberty. But this was also a time of inequality, with many underprivileged people, especially children orphaned by parents who faced circumstances beyond their control. There were laborers in the factories, newsies and pick-pockets. In a stratified society, these people bring new understanding, and also new thrills, to the Cross family.
The story is loosely based on a real person, George L. Leslie, an architect who turned bank robber during the 1870s and is believed to have committed 80 percent of New York’s bank robberies of the time.
House of Thieves is set to be published Tuesday.
Christina Erickson is manager of Off the Beaten Path.
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