You know I’m a sucker for beautiful book covers and there was something about the one for House of Thieves by bestselling author Charles Balfoure that drew me in. When I read the publisher’s description, I was even more intrigued. Historical fiction buffs, have I got a book for you! Set in 19th century New York City, this novel paints a detailed picture of a reluctant hero, his family, social mores, city politics, and how easily a good person’s life can change with just a few tweaks that fate throws into life’s path. If that sounds interesting, read on…
John Cross is a highly respected architect in 1886 New York City. This period is often referred to as New York’s Gilded Age, with good cause. Money flowed into the city and it was experiencing a renaissance of sorts. John has worked hard to gain his position in society and in his profession. He may not be among New York’s wealthy but he has developed a good livelihood and is among the most respected. His clientele has grown to include some of the city’s wealthiest inhabitants.
All in all, life is good for John and his family but all is not quite a smooth underneath the surface as it appears on the surface. For all of John’s architectural success, he actually has to juggle to keep up the appearances required of a man of his station. Money is a constant worry. And then there’s Aunt Carolyn Astor, who holds the family’s real purse strings. She keeps everyone under her quite judgmental thumb by dangling their inheritance in front of them, or the withdrawal of same if they step out of her rigid line of expectations. Without Aunt Carolyn’s monetary contributions to the family, they would be hard pressed to keep their station in society and she knows that, and she takes ruthless advantage of it.
“Caroline Astor was the undisputed queen – or despot, some felt – of New York society. She alone determined who belonged and who did not. If a person failed to meet her approval, he or she was condemned to social death.”
“John Cross likened his lifestyle to the architectural scale he used in his drawings; he lived at one hundredth the full scale life of the Astors.
But, to her credit, Caroline had opened doors to the advantages and privileges of society, to him and especially to George and his other two children, Julia and Charlie. Thanks to her connections, Cross’ architectural practice prospered. But Cross knew that if there were the tiniest hint of scandal about anyone in his family, she’d cut them off in a second and would have nothing to do with them again.”
And then the unthinkable happens. John’s oldest son, George, has a weakness the family knows nothing about. He loves to gamble and he can’t quit. And he loses – big. Unfortunately, George has borrowed a large sum of money from one of the many enterprises run by New York City’s biggest crime syndicate, Kent’s Gents, to fund his addiction. And he has no way to repay them.
“’Beautiful night, isn’t it, George?’
The voice came from directly behind him. George smiled and swiveled around, expecting to see an admiring classmate. Then his face turned pale, and the cigarette dropped from his lips.
James T. Kent sat at a table a few yards away, dressed in elegant evening attire, smoking a cigar and sipping a glass of white wine.
‘Just dropped in for a nightcap before heading home after the theater. But now that I’m here, maybe I could have a word with you. It’s about a matter of some delicacy.’”
When Kent’s Gents kidnap John and take him to meet their leader, James Kent, we discover that John has no way to repay that huge debt either. Kent is a cold-blooded killer, even if he does come from a wealthy family. John knows Kent will do exactly what he says, i.e., that if the full debt isn’t repaid asap then George will be killed in an unsavory manner and will be feeding the fishes. Kent does give John a morally reprehensible way to resolve the debt and save his son’s life. All he has to do is use his proprietary knowledge of houses he’s built for the wealthy to find a no-fail way for Kent’s Gents to get into those houses and rob the owners with no way of getting caught.
What is John to do? He can’t let George die for being stupid – punished, yes, but die, never. At the same time, he can’t lose everything he’s worked for by consorting with thieves. He must adhere to society’s strict code of ethics or he’s lost. He also can’t risk Aunt Caroline ever discovering what his son did because that would cut off the money spigot the family depends on. And his clients have trusted him to create safe, secure places for their valuables within their homes that most thieves would never find, much less be able to access.
Family trumps everything else, and John very reluctantly agrees to the arrangement. And thus begins a balancing act that would make any high-wire trapeze artist gasp. What will become of John and his family?
John is basically a good man. He’s always tried to live by the rules; the rules of society, the rules of his church, the rules of his profession, and the unwritten rules of the period. He is completely unprepared for the hidden society of criminals that exist in New York and how that hidden society has nothing but disdain for all of his rules. Coming into contact with them not only literally changes his life but it changes how he views his world, a bubble of a world he’s made way too many assumptions about. And, yes, John is a reluctant hero. And his family – well, they are a piece of work. You’ll have to read the book to see how this run in with Kent’s Gents changes his already quirky family. I will say this – they do always put family first.
I loved every minute of House of Thieves. It was filled with suspense, tons of authentic period detail, cracked me up at times, and kept me turning pages late into the night. Charles Balfoure is an architect as well as a bestselling author, and is a great example of how successful novels can be when you write what you know. Talk about a rollercoaster ride – this one has some hairpin turns that made me wonder if my eyebrows were going to get stuck high up on my forehead for all time. Luckily mom was wrong, my face didn’t stick like that. I know I seem to be recommending quite a few books right now – and I’m definitely recommending House of Thieves for historical fiction fans, or anyone who likes suspense or books about families.
Can’t wait to read House of Thieves? It’s available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller below. If you download it as an e-book, you’ll have it to read immediately!
I’d love to get your comments on House of Thieves, Charles Balfoure and/or his other work, and/or this review.