Today's guest blog is by author Charles Belfoure. An architect, he practices historic preservation as both an architect and a consultant. His first novel was The Paris Architect.
I have always been attracted to villains.
In fact I admire them. In the movies, I always root for them to win out but in an American society based on strict Puritan-Calvinist morality, they always get their comeuppance and get caught or killed off. My admiration is probably because I secretly want to do something evil or criminal but don’t have the guts to actually try it.
In my novel House of Thieves, a society architect in 1886 New York is forced to join a criminal gang in order to pay off his son’s massive gambling debts or the son will be killed. As the story goes on, the architect discovers he likes being a criminal.
I based the character on a real historical figure named George L. Leslie who came from a wealthy Midwestern family and supposedly practiced architecture in New York City in the 1870s. He gave up being an architect because he preferred being a criminal who planned bank robberies. The career change was probably much more lucrative.
The closest I’ve ever been to the criminal world is when as a young architect I inadvertently got a job designing a house addition for the head of the New England Mafia (the New England Mafia extends from Connecticut to the Canadian border) in the early 1990s. It was just a small addition to a nondescript suburban house (and yes, I got paid in cash). I didn’t find out who he was under the project was well underway. I knew something was amiss when I told the contractor, an elderly Italian fellow, that the steel beam he’d gotten was way bigger than it needed to be. He replied not to worry, someone had given it to us for free.
I was scared but couldn’t do anything but see the job out. The Mafia is its own separate nation-state within America which has its own laws and doesn’t answer to anyone. Who would have I complained to? But I really got along well with my client. He was always on the construction site during the day telling me he worked nights.
Whenever he called me to come over and look at something, I never said I was busy. I knew I had to come right away. He had a hair-trigger temper but never yelled at me. My client yelled so much at the contractor that he had a nervous breakdown. The old man asked me to step in and help with the construction management, giving me a dubious compliment – “Billy really likes you.”
About two weeks after the job was finished, I was passing a newspaper vending machine and saw my client’s face on the front page. It was his mug shot from the time he spent at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. The article said his naked body had been found in the river with a bullet in the base of his skull. A combined sense of shock, relief, and regret swept over me. I actually came to like the guy. Later, it turned out that his own crew murdered him because they couldn’t stand working for him anymore. From displays of his temper, I could tell he had poor people skills.
In the same article were accounts of what happened to people that had crossed him. In front of bar he owned was a landscaped area where one day he saw a man trample newly planted flowers. He chastised the man who cursed at him. Two days later, the flower hater was slumped over the wheel of car with a bullet in his head.
When I was watching the Sopranos series, something a character said about Tony Sopranostruck me. “You know, before he became a boss, he used to be the sweetest guy in the world.” That’s exactly the same thing the old contractor said about my client.
After that experience, I had no desire to be in the criminal world but I still root for villains.
The House of Thieves by Charles Belfoure is published on 17 September (Allison & Busby, £12.99)
In 1886 New York, a respectable architect shouldn't have any connection to the notorious gang of thieves and killers that rules the underbelly of the city. But when John Cross's son racks up an unfathomable gambling debt to Kent's Gent's, Cross must pay it back himself. All he has to do is use his inside knowledge of high society mansions and museums to craft a robbery even the smartest detectives won't solve. The take better include some cash too: the bigger the payout, the faster this will be over. With a newfound talent for sniffing out vulnerable and lucrative targets, Cross becomes invaluable to the gang. But Cross's entire life has become a balancing act, and it will only take one mistake for it all to come crashing down and for his family to go down too.
More information about his work can be found on his website. You can also follow him on Twitter @charlesblefoure and find him on FaceBook.