House of Thieves
“a page-turning suspense novel with both dastardly characters and charming ones, a fascinating setting, and a mesmerizing story.”
A stunning suspense novel that strips the Gilded Age bare to reveal the both the rigid social customs espoused by the old wealth Knickerbocker class and the predatory behavior of New York’s criminal underbelly.
John Cross is a successful architect, a relative of the undisputed leader of Knickerbocker society, Mrs. Caroline Astor, husband to the beautiful Helen, and father to three wonderful children. Unfortunately, one of those children, recent Harvard graduate George, is somewhat less than perfect, as Cross discovers when he meets James Kent, leader of one of New York City’s most notorious criminal gangs.
“I’m afraid that your son, George, has been doing business with me for the last year or so. Now he finds himself in serious financial difficulty. You see, he owes me a great deal of money.” A great deal of money, indeed. Forty-eight thousand dollars in 1886 is an astronomical sum, beyond the means of even a successful architect like John Cross.
There is no one from whom Cross can borrow the money, certainly not from Aunt Caroline Astor. “George’s dishonor would repulse her, and knowing Caroline, she’d slam the door on his family.” Even a hint of scandal, true or not, will destroy a respectable family, and having compulsive gambler as a son, particularly one who owes debts to criminals, is more than a scandal; it is a social and financial disaster.
More than being a social disgrace, George is also a kidnap victim. Kent is holding the boy to ensure that Cross pays his son’s debt. When Cross threatens to go to the police, Kent is clear about the consequences of such an action. “It will mean death for your son. In fact, I’ll kill him in front of you and then kill you.”
Instead of the police, John Cross visits Aunt Caroline’s attorney and asks for his help in thwarting James Kent. The next morning Cross finds the lawyer’s head frozen in a block of ice and left in his icebox. Even a man with half of Cross’s intelligence can recognize that James Kent is not a man to be thwarted by anyone.
John Cross learns exactly how his profession as an architect will be used by James Kent to ensure that George’s debt is paid. At a meeting in the newly-built Dakota, Cross meets Kent’s Gents, his new associates. Kent introduces him. “Boys, meet John Cross. Our new business consultant.”
In return for information on the homes of Cross has built for wealthy clients, he will receive a percentage of the proceeds of the theft to be applied to George’s debt. Cross is nauseous with the conflict between his moral code and his desire to save his family. “But Cross has no choice. The Cooks would survive. George might not.”
While John Cross plans the robbery with James Kent and his gang, John’s wife, Helen, is tutoring daughter Julia on the social rules a young lady of good family follows as she prepares for her entry into society. As well as knowing the proper way to leave a calling card, there is also another unbreakable rule: “For Julia to have the highest value on the society matrimonial market, even the tiniest hint of scandal must be avoided.”
To save his family from scandal and loss of status, John Cross must become a thief; however, once John steps across the line between respectability and criminal activity, he cannot step back. One does not resign from Kent’s Gents. There is another problem that Cross faces. He is beginning to enjoy planning robberies; moreover, he is good at it.
John Cross’s life is unraveling, but so is his family. When George is freed, he resumes his gambling; Julia begins keeping company with a handsome pickpocket; and younger son, Charles, makes friends with one of the homeless boys from the worst part of the city. Worst of all, John must confess to his wife about his secret life and George’s dishonorable behavior. The revelations of his family’s behavior, and his confession to Helen lead to unexpected results.
The House of Thieves by Charles Belfoure is a superb novel as both a story of suspense and as a portrait of the contrast between the two extremes of New York City society: the wealthy in their spectacular homes; and the gambling establishments, brothels, opium dens, and criminal activity in pursuit of money, or in the case of the thousands of homeless children, the pursuit for survival.
Belfoure’s narrative description of Gilded Age New York City in 1886 is as richly detailed as the ornately decorated homes of the wealthy. He evokes the sights, sounds, and even the smells of the city in such explicit terms that one feels a sense or being there in reality as well as in the imagination. While some might prefer a little more ambiguity, Belfoure’s sharply-drawn characters which subtly define good and evil suit the story perfectly. Too much angst and ambiguity would weaken the characters and lessen the suspense.
House of Thieves is a page-turning suspense novel with both dastardly characters and charming ones, a fascinating setting, and a mesmerizing story. One should not begin reading this book late in the evening unless loss of a night’s sleep is not an issue.